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River of a Thousand Promises

by Patty Wentz

Last spring, the feds turned off the irrigators in Klamath Falls, Oregon, to save some endangered fish. Farmers went wild. The media ate it up. But there's a bigger story -- about bald eagles, salmon fishers, Indians, and promises that could never be kept.

Gavin Rajnus had been talking for so long he was losing his voice. The thirty-three-year-old father of two is a potato grower in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Farming in the Klamath River basin is, to his mind, his birthright. His great-grandfather, one of the original Czech homesteaders, settled here in 1911. The Rajnus clan has farmed this area for generations, trusting that a government-run irrigation project would always keep their fields green.

That all changed, however, last April 6.

On that day, known locally as "Black Friday," federal law collided with Mother Nature, and the farmers were the immediate and obvious casualties. The Department of Interior announced that the most serious drought in decades was forcing it to cut back on water use -- and that agriculture was no longer first in line. The water for some 1,200 farms was needed for three types of fish that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

For the first time, the federal irrigation taps were completely turned off. The farmers pitched a fit, blaming the shutoff on what they saw as the suspicious agenda of regional environmental groups who wanted to take their farms away. "The Endangered Species Act isn't really about the fish," Rajnus said, stopping to clear his throat. "It's about the land."

He was speaking last summer from "Camp Headgate," a spontaneous round-the-clock protest on a dusty parking lot near the concrete gate that controls the flow for the main irrigation canal. At first glance, the place looked like a small-town Fourth of July picnic. People were gathered on hay bales, kids and dogs playing at their feet. These weren't picnickers, however. Signs with slogans like "Government by the people, of the people, for the fish?" were held in upraised hands. A rubber George W. Bush mask was impaled on a chain-link fence. Federal agents stood guard over the government-controlled water on the other side of the fence. There was also, in defiance of the law, a 6-inch aluminum pipe diverting a symbolic amount of Upper Klamath Lake water into the main irrigation canal.

Rajnus had turned into one of the spokesmen of a movement, and his voice was getting as used up as the battery on his cell phone, but he kept on talking. "I'm staying here until spring if I have to," he rasped. "I'm staying here until I get my water."

The national media, particularly Fox News Channel, ate it up. Stories came out about endangered species taking precedence over struggling families, and big-city environmentalists going after small farmers. The Wall Street Journal even editorialized that national environmental groups were committing "rural cleansing" in Klamath Falls.

Politicians responded. Western Republican members of Congress held a field hearing at Klamath Falls in June, promising to rewrite the Endangered Species Act to take economic impacts into consideration. In July, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton released 75,000 acre-feet of water to the farmers when Upper Klamath Lake was found to contain a foot more water than expected. And last August she took the unprecedented step of asking the National Academy of Sciences to review the biology that led to the shutoff.

The government was providing simple answers to what seemed like a simple problem. But in reality, the water war in Klamath Falls is infinitely more complicated than fish versus farmers. It is as difficult to see a way to a solution as it is to see through a glass of water from the depleted, murky, algae-choked lake that started it all. It is really the old story of the West, where the federal government has promised too much to too many for far too long.

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges

State of Oregon Klamath website

EcoNorthwest report

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Patty Wentz spent four years covering state politics and the environment as a reporter for Willamette Week. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Photos: Top, David Muench Photography; Inset, Gary Thain
Map: Laurie Grace

OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council