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River of a Thousand Promises
Page 5

One other species affected by the klamath project is the bald eagle. Below the tribal land, south of the headgates, the Klamath basin opens up into an avian paradise. It is the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge, created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt -- the same president who signed the Reclamation Act that launched the Klamath Project. Roosevelt set aside 81,000 acres as the first federal waterfowl refuge in the United States (though reclamation later whittled the refuge down to 49,000 acres). Here, away from the angry protesters and television cameras, is a glimpse of life before the project. Pelicans rise in synchronistic flight and herons stalk through the marshlands.

The refuge, like the farmers and the fish, counts on water from the Klamath basin for life. One of six refuges in the area, it sits under the Pacific Flyway, the main route for migratory birds on the West Coast. Ducks, egrets, herons, pelicans, and more use the mix of marshland, lakes, grassy uplands, and croplands for feeding, nesting, and rearing their broods. This is also the main home of the Klamath basin bald eagle population, one of the two largest in the country outside of Alaska. The eagles fly from around the Northwest Territories and the West to winter here, feeding on ducks and other waterfowl. There are usually around 600, but some years the refuge has counted almost a thousand bald eagles.

This year, however, most of the refuge's marshlands look dry. Less water means fewer ducks. Fewer ducks mean the eagles could starve. So the water that did make it to the refuge last summer was judiciously metered out to create duck habitat. "We're essentially focusing our strategy on a single species," said Dave Mauser, biologist at the refuge. "We're flooding seasonal marsh habitat that the ducks like and letting bulrushes, for example, which other birds prefer, go dry. That's not prioritizing egrets and herons and bitterns and rails and shorebirds. But there just isn't enough water for everything."

By summer's end, no solutions had been found. the farmers dismantled Camp Headgate after September 11, saying that the federal agents guarding the water should be freed up for national security. At the same time, the farmers pulled out of mediation talks spurred by their lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation. Too many interests were at the table, they said. They have also filed another suit against the government, arguing that shutting off the water was a federal "taking" and they are due compensation.

Meanwhile, everyone in the basin is waiting for the science and the politics to come together -- and praying for snow.

The Bureau of Reclamation is working on a new biological assessment of the region. It is not known how the Bush administration will change the water requirements for the fish, if at all. The initial National Academy of Sciences review of the biology behind last year's turnoff, requested by Gale Norton, will be released in January 2002.

At this point, all parties except the farmers agree that in addition to restoring habitat and possibly taking out some dams, one simple solution is to reduce the demand for water. The American Lands Coalition and the Oregon Natural Resources Council have both put forward proposals for the federal government to buy farmland and take it out of production. Though the feds have not shown much eagerness yet, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden supports the idea. There are also basic water conservation techniques that farmers could use, such as drip irrigation and switching from alfalfa and potatoes to dryland grains that need little water.

But even these solutions are freighted with controversy.

Like Gavin Rajnus, Keith Buckingham is a Klamath basin farmer. He works 1,000 acres of potatoes, onions, mint, wheat, barley, and alfalfa near Tulelake, California, under a looming Mount Shasta. His father was also a veteran homesteader who came to the basin in 1949. Until last summer, Buckingham was president of the Tulelake Growers Association.

But Buckingham thinks the Klamath water crisis will not be solved by a group of protesters at the headgate. He says that over the past decade it has become increasingly difficult to make a go of farming in the basin. It isn't just the water. Farmers have been fighting low-cost imports and the overproduction of domestic potatoes. Buckingham believes that farmers should help solve the water problem by adjusting to dryland agriculture. Because he expressed these sentiments in a local newspaper article that supported buying out farmers, however, he was forced to resign from the Growers Association. "Over those two statements, my head was handed to me," he said. "Their perspective was that this is a holy war, and we must continue it as such -- that we are right and we demand our water. And we will fight until we get it."

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges

State of Oregon Klamath website

EcoNorthwest report

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Photo: Top Inset, Lee Rentz; Lower Inset, Gary Thain

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