Federal officials were considering whether to call in U.S. marshals Thursday to enforce the Endangered Species Act after angry farmers and residents sent water reserved for threatened and endangered fish into an irrigation canal.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also was meeting with officials of the Klamath Irrigation District in an effort to restore calm.
"It is a discussion of mutual concerns," said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken. "We have a responsibility to follow the law."
The bureau controls the Klamath Project irrigation system, serving 240,000 acres of farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin along the Oregon-California border.
On Wednesday, a crowd of 100 to 150 people armed with a chain saw and a cutting torch opened a gate that had been welded shut and reopened a head gate to send water from Upper Klamath Lake back into a canal of the Klamath Project.
It was the second time in a week that the head gate had been opened in defiance of the bureau's April decision that severe drought made it impossible to provide water to 90% of the land in the Klamath Project without jeopardizing the survival of endangered suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.
Water flowed into the canal for more than four hours, until bureau officials closed it down, the Klamath Falls Herald and News reported.
Klamath Falls police and county sheriff's deputies observed but did not interfere because no state or local laws were being broken, the newspaper said.
Since the water was shut off last April, Klamath Basin farmers with no other source of water have been forced to sell cattle, let pastures and hayfields go brown, and give up annual plantings of potatoes, grain and other crops.
Many other lands in the Klamath Basin, served by wells or other irrigation districts, are green.
Ron Johnson, a Klamath Falls farm equipment dealer, said the canal was reopened because people are frustrated and want to see something done.
"There is a lot of anger," he said. "It is really unfair to a lot of people who make their livelihood from farming, having everything taken away from them like it is."