KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - Protesting the loss of irrigation water to the Endangered Species Act, Klamath Basin farmers staged a bucket brigade Monday, scooping water out of Upper Klamath Lake and passing it hand-to-hand up Main Street to pour into an irrigation canal.
More than 8,000 people turned out for a rally and another 5,000 lined Main Street to pass along blue buckets, each bearing a state postal code and some with a slogan, such as "Amend the ESA!"
Despite advice from a federal judge last week to negotiate long-term solutions to their water problems, farmers in the high desert basin straddling the Oregon-California border have vowed to fight for water.
Farms cover hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the state line, where crops such as alfalfa, barley, hay, wheat and potatoes have depended on irrigation water since the Klamath Project opened its headgates in 1907.
The rally was held to protest the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's decision last month to cut off water for 90 percent of the farms on 200,000 acres served by the irrigation project.
The water was being held in Upper Klamath Lake for endangered sucker fish and allowed to run down the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon, rather than moving through the intricate series of canals to farms before dumping into wildlife refuges.
But a drought that has cut water supplies by more than two-thirds sent the decision to cut off farmers all the way to Vice President Dick Cheney.
The water allocation marked the first time since 1907 that farmers have lost out to the interests of the Klamath and Yurok tribes, which hold treaties guaranteeing protection of their fisheries, and Pacific Coast salmon fishermen.
"Together as a community we cannot let this happen," said Mexican immigrant Venancio Hernandez.
He said his family came to the United States for a better life, but it was not until 1995 that he was finally able to work his own farm. Now, Hernandez says, "the water crisis is forcing me out of business."
Marion Palmer, a World War II veteran who homesteaded his farm in the Tule Lake area in 1949, said the decision to cut off water affects the entire community.
"Fifty-nine years ago, we were welcomed home as heroes and asked to feed a hungry world," Palmer said. "Today, we may be reduced to welfare recipients standing in line for rice and cheese."
Jess Prosser, another World War II veteran who homesteaded in 1946, dipped the first bucket for the brigade line. The first and second buckets were white and represented Oregon and California.
Prosser handed them to his son John, who passed it along to his son James to symbolize how the land is passed from generation to generation.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., told the crowd that he would reintroduce a bill to change the Endangered Species Act, and seek funding for improved water storage and farmer aid.
"If the government chooses to save the sucker fish, it must not make suckers of Klamath County," Smith said. "We must never forget that if it is not OK to say a sucker fish is of more value under the law than a farm family."
Smith was joined by several fellow Republicans, including U.S.
Two Republican congressmen - Reps. Wally Herger of California and Greg Walden of Oregon - also called for changes in the Endangered Species Act, with Herger calling the Klamath irrigation cutoff "the poster child" for changes.
Last month, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., ruled that the bureau violated the act last year by ignoring the needs of threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River and giving farmers their full water allocation.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene denied the farmers' request for an injunction restoring their water deliveries, saying the fish must get first consideration under the Endangered Species Act and the public interest.
Aiken urged farmers to take advantage of court-ordered mediated negotiations with Indian tribes, conservationists, salmon fishermen and others to reduce demand for limited water supplies in the Klamath Basin.
On the Net
Klamath Project: dataweb.usbr.gov/html/klamathh.html
Endangered Species Act: http://endangered.fws.gov/esa.html