Dreams Dry Up in Klamath Basin


Gone is the familiar hiss of water through irrigating wheel lines, the hum of tractors and combines and the raucous honking of ducks. Even the whine of mosquitoes is eerily missing.

The barley should be hip-high in the field that Gene Haskins tilled like his father and grandfather before him. But his stunted crop barely reaches his knees in dried-up soil. Haskins filed for bankruptcy in April, as have dozens of local farmers, victims of a vicious drought and a century of ill-conceived public policy.

Along dusty roads in lip-splitting dry heat, signs of desperation are everywhere. Sheep grazing on bare ground run toward the road when a car stops, baaing furiously and wrapping their mouths around the strands of barbed-wire fence.


The farmers blame their plight on the Endangered Species Act, a law widely condemned for valuing wildlife more than people. But the cruel truth is that the farm economy and the environment are crashing in tandem.

Birds are dying as ponds dry up in wildlife refuges. The Klamath River Basin’s six refuges are part of the largest wintering grounds for bald eagles in the Lower 48 states. The two refuges in the worst shape have depended on irrigation water ever since a network of marshes and lakes was drained to provide more water for agriculture.

The unfolding tragedy is the culmination of a century of unsustainable federal policies designed to satisfy demands for cropland, fishing, population growth and wildlife protection.

Experts warn that what is happening here may be a precursor of potential catastrophe looming in other Western communities accustomed to cheap and abundant federal water and plentiful wildlife.

“This has been coming for a long time. They overbooked the plane. There’s only so much water, and they’ve given it too many times,” said writer William Kittredge, a former rancher who grew up near Klamath Falls and whose books deal with water and other resources in the West. “The defining fact about the West is aridity.”

Established in 1907, the Klamath irrigation project was one of the first of its kind. In 1947, a Life magazine cover story featured a beaming young World War II veteran and his bride who had won a lottery entitling them to a homestead on the rich soils of Tulelake, Calif., at the southern end of the Klamath irrigation project. It was a dream come true.


The dream dried up this spring, after the Klamath River Basin was seized by a historic drought. For the first time in 94 years, the federal water did not flow, starving 1,200 farms along the Oregon-California border. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in April announced a 90% reduction in irrigation water--leaving 19 of 21 water districts and two federal wildlife refuges with no water at all.

Federal officials blamed the water shut-off on the drought and a legal obligation to give first priority for water to imperiled fish--two species of suckers and the coho salmon--in the Klamath River and in Upper Klamath Lake. “We’ve been providing water to this community for 94 years, and we’re really frustrated this year,” said bureau spokesman Jeffrey S. McCracken.

Farmers erupted, protesting that the government valued fish over people. Hundreds of protest signs appeared almost overnight in bare fields and frontyards: “Loggers, Ranchers, Farmers, What’s Next?,” “Federally Created Disaster Area,” “No Water, No Barley, No Beer.”

Farmers and their supporters set up camp at the south end of Upper Klamath Lake, next to the now-shut head gates that seal off lake water from the irrigation canal leading to the water-deprived farms. Beyond a chain-link fence, federal law enforcement officers stand guard at the gates. Four times, protesters have forced open the gates and built a makeshift pipeline that sluices water toward ruined fields.

‘That’s Our Water,’ Says One Protester

Tensions mounted last week when the protesters moved a large yellow excavator and a bulldozer onto the site and marked the earth with orange lines, as if they were about to carve their own canal from the lake toward their farms.

“The gist of the whole thing is that’s our water,” said Jon Hall, 49, motioning at the lake. “They’ve taken a fish and put it over you and me.”


But others blame a system long overtaxed with too many obligations to farmers, fishermen, Native American tribes, migrating waterfowl and endangered wildlife.

“Federal policy on development and federal policy on environment--it’s a collision,” said Reed Marbut, intergovernmental coordinator at the Oregon Water Resources Department.

“This is one where it seems humans want it all,” said David Yparraguirre, waterfowl coordinator at the California Department of Fish and Game. “We want to keep the agricultural base. We want the wildlife, with the fish. We want it all.”

The basin’s promise of secure water opened a new frontier to hundreds of families early in the 20th century. Farmer Marshall Staunton’s stockbroker grandfather, a World War I veteran, obtained homestead land here just before losing everything else in the 1929 stock market crash. The land offered him and his family security in depressed times. Other families settled in the basin after the two world wars, intent on peacetime economic success.

“The government encouraged everyone to come out here, develop the land, feed the nation,” said Jim Carlton, 33, of Merrill, Ore.

What the basin offered them was cheap water and cheap electric power to pump it. The Reclamation Act of 1902 made possible the massive Klamath project, which not only channeled water to arid land--the typical Western technique--but drained as much as 80% of the basin’s bountiful lakes and marshes to create even more farmland on rich peat lake-bottom soil.


Ensuring a productive landscape required re-engineering the valley’s natural hydrology, using a complex system of dams, dikes, channels, pipelines and even a 6,600-foot tunnel. Today, a basin map shows an elaborate grid of thin red lines--the once-dependable lifelines for basin farmers. It feeds more than 200,000 acres of irrigated lands, once flush with crops of grains, alfalfa, potatoes, sugar beets, horseradish and sweet-scented mint.

Every spring, water revived the valley.

“We call it painting the valley green,” said Staunton, the oldest of three brothers still farming the land. The winter landscape would be gray and brown, a cold wind blowing. “Then, boom, here come the plants.”

Not this year. The valley is a patchwork of green and brown, a map of haves and have-nots. Some lucky farmers have wells and green fields. Some are wealthy enough to buy water. Some fields are deceptively green, planted with soil-saving cover crops. Others, close up, are really huge weed patches, worrying farmers with the specter of autumn winds whipping weed seeds up and down the valley.

The Klamath Basin tragedy has been portrayed as bottom-feeding fish violating hard-working people’s rights. To a point, the Endangered Species Act did trump the laws protecting basin water users.

“The ESA set the stage, and the drought set the table,” said Marbut of the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the Lost River sucker and the short-nosed sucker on the endangered species list in 1988. The National Marine Fisheries Service followed in 1997 by listing the coho salmon. Such listing means that the fish cannot be harassed, harmed or killed.


Environmentalists say the disappearing fish signaled the collapse of the entire Klamath River ecosystem.

In a controversial April opinion that helped trigger the water crisis, Fish and Wildlife biologists wrote: “Nearly all basin streams and rivers have been degraded, some seriously, by the loss of riparian vegetation, geomorphic changes, introduction of return flows from agricultural drainage ditches and water pumped from drained wetlands. . . . Most water bodies in the basin fail to meet water quality criteria.”

Yurok Tribe Members Depend Heavily on Fish

Some claim this crisis could have been predicted years ago, if the signs had been heeded. Coho salmon runs grew markedly thin in the Lower Klamath River, historically one of the most important salmon rivers on the Pacific Coast.

“Man has manipulated the habitat, and now we’re paying the price of that manipulation,” said Troy Fletcher, the executive director of the Yurok tribe.

The Yurok reservation flanks the lower 44 miles of the Klamath, and tribe members heavily depend on its fish for food and commerce.

“This isn’t a fish-versus-people issue, as it’s been framed,” Fletcher said. “There are people behind the fish, real people on which this has real impact.”


Inevitably, critics come back to the Endangered Species Act. “The real problem here is that the ESA doesn’t allow a compromise,” said David Haddock, staff attorney for the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative firm representing the Klamath and Tulelake irrigation districts, which are mulling a suit against the federal government.

“If the ESA weren’t so rigid,” Haddock said, “we could try for a compromise.”

Some officials suspect a long-term solution could be a habitat conservation plan--a system of compromise created by a 1982 Endangered Species Act amendment. But such a plan would take years to complete.

The Klamath crisis looms as the biggest challenge to date for Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who oversees three agencies with conflicting interests in the water wars--the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A Norton aide attended mediation sessions in Eugene, Ore., last week, but officials were tight-lipped about the outcome.

As the drought takes its toll on wallets and spirits, family nurse-practitioner Michael Sheets says he has been prescribing antidepressants to one of every three patients he sees. Retired from the U.S. Public Health Service, Sheets has spent his career working in poor rural areas, but he has seen nothing like this year in the Klamath Basin. He breaks down as he describes the pain he witnesses every day.

“I’ve got people puking blood, because of bleeding ulcers, because they’re so angry,” he said. “They don’t want drugs. They don’t want government handouts. They want to work.”

Some farmers, like Gene Haskins and his parents, are ready to sell their land. Others, like Staunton, want to see a plan crafted to allow farming to continue in this troubled valley, perhaps slightly reduced with a redesigned irrigation system and improved water quality.


“Agriculture’s headed for a horrible outcome unless we resolve this,” Staunton said. As for the farmers who settled this valley: “We have to approach the Klamath like we did San Francisco after the earthquake. We didn’t blame people for building on an earthquake fault.”

The Silence Is Haunting

On Wednesday, Haskins applied for assistance to go to truck-driving school.

He insists he is ready to sell out, but he still wanders through his fields, looking for signs of life, finding faint hope in a frail green shaft of barley.

“There’s going to be something out here,” Haskins said, his voice suddenly becoming animated. “It’s got kernels in it, and it’s starting to get some meat on it.”

Then, he moves on to another field that lies fallow. The silence is haunting, he says. Normally, you’d hear tractors, irrigators, people driving around.

“The farmers around here, I imagine they’re awful bored. Sitting around at home. Wondering.”