Seen from 1,000 feet in Rich Steinbock's slowly circling Cessna, the Klamath Basin seems to have it all: Six national wildlife refuges. Meandering rivers. Irrigation canals bringing precious water to productive farms and ranches. Rural communities spread out around a small city that has never seen a traffic jam. Crater Lake National Park to the north. Snow-capped Mt. Shasta to the south.
Below, white pelicans, Canada geese, and hundreds of other migrating waterfowl circle and settle into one of the most important stops along the Pacific flyway.
But all is not as peaceful as it seems down there along the Oregon-California border.
Near Tulelake, Calif., Steve and Nancy Kandra - third generation farmers - hope and pray their 1,000 acres don't blow away as dust. Like the Kandras, hundreds of farmers here wonder whether they'll make it through what may become a drought this summer, especially since Uncle Sam has turned off the spigot on most of their irrigation water.
An hour or so north in Chiloquin, Ore., Klamath tribal leader Joe Hobbs, whose people have been here for thousands of years, watches as the fish, deer, and other wildlife they've traditionally relied on dwindle away with the water that sustained their habitats. It seems one more insult to a native American people who were pressured to give up their land under federal edict.
And in between, environmentalist and former high school biology teacher Wendell Wood stands along the shore of Klamath Lake and worries that the hundreds of bald eagles who come here from Alaska and Montana - the largest number in the lower 48 states - will not make it through another winter as the water level in the lake drops to where the fish and ducks the eagles feed on become scarce.
The situation has drawn national attention. Politicians have come out from Washington to rail against the federal laws that seem to put endangered species ahead of farmers in deciding who gets water during times of scarcity. National environmental groups, which liken the Klamath Basin to the Everglades in its biological richness, are just as adamant that the refuges - just a remnant of what once was a vast area of lakes and marshes - need more, not less, protection. The Klamath tribes see it as part of their fight to get back the land (and its resources) that most historians now say was wrongfully taken from them.
The symbols of this water war are rather lowly: Potatoes and sucker fish.
But there's much more to it than that, and the issues and the fundamental values behind them are profound, involving family farming, native American treaty rights, and environmental protection.
This is also a human drama that shows how misguided and conflicting federal policies going back a century can have widespread economic, social, and political impact. And the way it's resolved - for better or for worse - is likely to set the tone for other contentious debates involving property and natural resources, particularly as the Bush administration pushes for more locally controlled and economically driven policies.
"Whiskey's for drinking, and water's for fighting," Mark Twain once wrote about the constant battle over water out beyond the 100th meridian, where rainfall is scarce. And in some ways, this is a classic Western water-war story.
But it has a very modern twist in that it involves recently evolved thought on ecosystems and biodiversity as well as economic globalism. In other words, NAFTA (the North America Free Trade Agreement) may be just as important in this case as the federal Endangered Species Act.
The ESA - perhaps the most controversial and contentious environmental law - is at the heart of the recent decision by a federal judge severely limiting water diverted for irrigation this year. Snowpacks are at one-third their normal levels, and the judge ruled that three threatened or endangered fish take precedence: two species of sucker (called C'wam and Qupto by Indians here) and coho salmon, which migrate up the Klamath River as far as the Iron Gate Dam in northern California.
At a protest rally that drew more than 15,000 farmers and their supporters to Klamath Falls recently, rancher Bill Kennedy said, "The saddest thing is my relationships with people - family, employees, clients." His Lost River Ranch in Bonanza, Ore., he said, is "going to take a major hit financially." That means not being able to plant all his usual crops and cutting the number of cows from 1,200 to 500.
And even though farming and ranching here aren't as big a part of the local economy as they once were (due to international competition, for one thing), the situation ripples out into the community.
Watching the protest march through town from the roof of the South Valley Bank & Trust where he's a financial counselor, Tracy Ronningen explains: "It means fewer dollars coming into the bank to be loaned out - fewer people qualified to borrow money for car loans, ag loans, real estate loans. Fewer workers [in farming] mean fewer teachers. The equation just goes on and on."
But there's another part of the regional economy and society that takes a very different view of the balance among water uses. Some 250 miles downstream, where the Klamath River empties into the Pacific, fishing-dependent communities along the Oregon and California coasts have been hammered by the irrigation diversions, as well as logging, mining, and cattle grazing that can harm the river.
"Downriver economic losses have already been staggering," says Glen Spain, regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
"Roughly 3,780 family-wage jobs have already been lost in these downriver fishing-based economies (representing a net loss of economic impacts of $75.6 million a year) by the failure to protect and restore salmon within the Klamath Basin," Mr. Spain testified before the US Senate in March, "and several thousand remaining jobs are now at risk."
The Klamath River once was the third-most-productive salmon run on the West Coast. Today, native coho salmon are listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act, and all populations of salmon above the Irongate Dam in northern California are extinct because there are no fish ladders.
Then there are the Klamath Tribes (the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yahooskin Band of Snake), whose traditional lands were whittled from 22 million acres to 880,000 acres until the tribes were "terminated" by federal law in 1954 and most of that land became national forests open to commercial logging. Up until then, the Klamath had been one of the most economically and socially successful native American groups in the United States.
In 1970, President Nixon declared the termination policy "morally and legally unacceptable," but by then tribal members were experiencing high rates of infant mortality, unemployment, and alcoholism. Recently, the 3,100-member Klamath tribes have begun the complicated political process of trying to regain 700,000 acres of their traditional lands.
"From the native American point of view, we've always wanted to sustain the land," says tribal vice-chairman Joe Hobbs. "We're looking to get the land back, and we want to restore it."
Critics dismiss the sucker fish as "bottom feeders," but Mr. Hobbs points out that "historically, we harvested over 50 tons a year" of the large fish now threatened with extinction. "And we had salmon before the dams went in," he adds. These days, the tribe takes only one fish a year for ceremonial purposes.
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.
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