Drought and a Western
Legacy of US water policies pits farmers, native Americans, and environmentalists against one another
(Page 3 of 3)
There's no doubt that the environment has been changed here, probably forever. Since the US Bureau of Reclamation began the Klamath Project in 1905, the massive replumbing has come to include seven dams, 45 pumping plants, 185 miles of canals, and 516 miles of irrigation ditches.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Farm chemicals have changed the chemistry in parts of the lakes and streams, sometimes causing algae blooms that deprive water of oxygen and kill fish.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, less than 25 percent of the historic wetlands remain. Within the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, some 25,000 acres are leased to farmers growing potatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa, and other crops. The refuges (and the farms where Canada geese and other birds feed on grain) remain a very important part of the Pacific flyway. But over the years, the numbers of visiting waterfowl have declined from more than 6 million ducks and geese to fewer than 2 million birds.
"We've taken and taken and taken from this ecosystem over the past century, and we have to put something back," says Mr. Wood.
There is historical irony in the fact that President Theodore Roosevelt launched the Reclamation Act of 1902 and also named the Klamath Basin as the spot for the country's first national wildlife refuge. This enthusiasm for both agricultural expansion and for conservation (particularly in light of Indian water rights established by treaty and upheld in the courts) meant that the water was over-allocated. As a result, farmers, fish, birds, and Indians are all paying the price.
The fight out here is a tough one for many people.
"Things are not looking good for me, not at all," says Serefino Salazar, a farmworker who came from Mexico 30 years ago and has raised a family of six. One son says he should move to Las Vegas. A friend says Florida might have more work. He's glad to get a day's work with farmer Steve Kandra, laying pipe where there'll be just enough water to plant a cover crop of wheat to protect the soil.
"We're trying to keep as much of it alive as we can," says Mr. Kandra, whose grandfather emigrated from Czechoslovakia through Ellis Island when he was 14 and eventually homesteaded at "Poverty Flat" just over the ridge from here. The Kandras are already resigned to the fact that their two children won't carry on the family farming tradition.
Keeping things alive is environmentalist Wood's goal, too. "We have to decide where we're going to grow bald eagles and where we're going to grow potatoes," he says, adding that it makes little sense to grow potatoes here when there's an international glut of spuds. For every foot that Upper Klamath Lake is lowered, he notes, hundreds of acres of marsh that sustain fish and wildlife dry up.
Tensions are high. While most farmers and ranchers are following the law and the court orders, hoping for a political resolution, some irrigators have been withdrawing water, to which they are not legally entitled.
"Economic terrorism by the federal government" reads one of the many hand-painted signs posted along normally bucolic fields. The local sheriff has warned Wood, who works for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, that he'd better be careful about where he goes. He's very selective about telling reporters where he lives.
Still, there's a sense among many here that with good will, balanced solutions can be found.
In the midst of all the political speechifying and hard talk at the Klamath Falls rally, one clergyman prayed: "Show us a way to protect both the farmer and the fish."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor