Water politics leave scars on farm families

January 27, 2003 12:00 am
John Crawford works the windswept fields of the upper Klamath Basin where he relies on river water to keep his farm afloat. "We'll fight what happened last year for the rest of our lives." (Robin T. Brown/ The Daily Triplicate).
John Crawford works the windswept fields of the upper Klamath Basin where he relies on river water to keep his farm afloat. "We'll fight what happened last year for the rest of our lives." (Robin T. Brown/ The Daily Triplicate).

In 2001, farmers in the Klamath Basin were denied water from the Klamath River, fields dried up and people went bankrupt. In 2002, water was diverted to farmers but that left river levels too low and 30,000 salmon suffocated in shallow pools. Now water managers are trying to fashion solutions. This is the first in a series of three stories that examines the crisis from the perspective of farmers, wildlife managers and tribal fishermen.

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

Standing against a fierce southern wind, John Crawford points with his cellular phone and directs a group of farmworkers to fields of mint that need to be ripped up and replanted before the approaching storm breaks.

Dust clouds rise behind John Deere tractors frantically turning fertile soil and the windswept fields are a buzz of productivity. That wasn't the case in 2001, however, when the Bureau of Reclamation shut off water to farmers in the Klamath Basin to provide for two species of sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the lower Klamath River.

"It sickened me last year to see what happened, to see hundreds of thousands of acres, like that are in production right now, just in weeds 10 feet high. It was horrible. We'll fight what happened last year for the rest of our lives."

With well water purchased from a neighbor, Crawford was able to stay afloat in 2001 by raising a small crop of onions. But others in the basin, dependent on water that was guaranteed to them nearly 100 years ago by the federally owned Klamath Irrigation Project, were not so lucky.

Boarded-up homes and vacant businesses of the small town of Tulelake tell part of the story. The large Hispanic community that resided there year-round travelled elsewhere to find work and many have not returned. Despite emergency government relief to the basin, agriculture-related businesses faltered and triggered a domino-like downfall in a community already suffering from several bad market years. They could not withstand the devastation of another year in debt.

"I didn't go bankrupt like a lot of my neighbors, but nobody came out of this thing whole, I can tell you that. I saw so many of my neighbors pack up and move out last year. It made me sick to my stomach. I hope that never happens again," said Crawford.

Harnessing the river

The farms of the Upper Klamath Basin stretch over 200,000 acres, erasing a defining border between California and Oregon. The land is flat and treeless for miles. White pelicans and ducks converge on thousands of miles of wetlands. Steep hills and mountains rise on the edges of this great expanse. Black and jagged obsidian juts out of pebbly perlite. Sagebrush and juniper spice the air near caves and lava beds that were once the home of the Modoc south of Tule Lake. The towering presence of Mt. Shasta can be seen on a clear day.

The water which feeds farmers in this part of Northern California and Southern Oregon comes from Upper Klamath Lake and the mighty Klamath River. The basin, once inundated with marshlands and swamps, was drained in the early 1900's to create fertile farmland, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation established an irrigation project to capture water for agriculture. With the promise of a constant water supply, homesteaders flocked to the area to establish farms and a rich tradition of farming in the Klamath Basin began.

"It was the creation of the Klamath Project that drew people to the area. It's ironic they were enticed to come here by the government's promise that water would be delivered," said Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users' Association.

But in recent years, diversions from the Klamath River brought the overallocation of Klamath water into sharp relief. Tribal, sport and commercial fishing interests, who depend on fishing to make a living, grew more and more concerned that the Klamath, historically attracting one of the greatest salmon runs on the the Pacific Coast, would no longer provide adequate water to support the fish.

The crisis

During 2001, fish were given first priority and farmers were cut off. Angry protests ensued, and the Bush administration stepped in. The next spring, floodgates opened and irrigation canals rushed with water again as tribal members looked on bewildered. Six months later, more than 30,000 adult chinook and coho salmon, steelhead and other species that are the center of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa river tribes' culture were killed by disease. River flows were too low, the state of California determined, and the standoff between upstream water users and downstream fishermen reached a crisis.

"The fish kill itself was a tragedy. I personally have ties to the river over there, to the Klamath River, to members of the Yurok Tribe, the entire community of Crescent City," Crawford said. "I've spent a good deal of time there and have since I was a boy. So my ties there and my respect and admiration for those people and the resources that they use, for the commercial fishing community, that runs deeper than you can imagine."

But he says, polarizing the issue by directing blame for the fish kill solely at Klamath Basin farmers is unfair, and the life he and his family built should not be a casualty.

‘We built this community'

"This is as good as it gets. It gets no better than this," Crawford said, as he kicked some of the rich, dark soil that became available for agriculture when Tule Lake was drained nearly 100 years ago. "I'm tired of people telling us we're farming the desert. It wasn't a desert, it was a lake and all we did was take it out of here and stick it in Upper Klamath Lake and bring it back to here at a more beneficial time and produce products that the world could utilize.

"We built these communities from the bottom up and to now turn around and say ‘well it was a bad idea,' is unacceptable. It was a good idea then. It accomplished all the goals that were set forth at that point in time. It's a good idea today," said Crawford.

The war over water has created deep scars in the basin's farming community. Handscrawled signs nailed to fenceposts shout out scalding messages:

"Honor your oath. People before fish."

"Welcome to Tulelake, home of the largest water theft in history."

"New addition to the endangered species list: Tulelake farmers."

Competing demands

Joining the list of the frustrated are the federal managers charged with doling out a meager water supply. They face a job of satisfying tribal interests, endangered species protections, a community of farmers as well as thousands of migrating birds.

"Suddenly what was the right-size project for an irrigation project now has to encompass other big competing demands," said Dave Sabo of the Bureau of Reclamation, who has been managing the Klamath Project for the past year.

"Everything was fine until you had these new things come into place. So, was the Reclamation shortsighted in 1905 when it set it up and didn't account for endangered species? No. Tribal trust was not something that they knew was going to assume the importance that it did," said Sabo.

In the wake of the fish kill, the whole problem of the Klamath River water was boiled down to a farmer versus fish dispute. Crawford doesn't like that simplistic view. Instead he points to the magnitude of last year's drought and some of the proposed solutions to get more water into the river. One such solution is releasing more water from the shallow, Upper Klamath Lake into the river.

Warm lake water

Upper Klamath Lake is the largest in the state of Oregon, 35 miles wide, but it is unusually shallow, only 4 to 7 feet deep, and at times is covered with a thick film of blue-green algae.

"It really is a sink for heat in the summer," said Sabo.

Warm water from that lake is not going to help fish, Crawford agrees. They need cool water. Fishery biologists counter that more warm water is better than not enough water.

"I think the decisions that are being made are well intentioned, but I don't believe that the desired results are going to be achieved by what is being suggested," said Crawford, adding that diversions from Klamath River tributaries must be examined.

"We think there's a way this thing is sustainable and it can work, but everybody has got to play. All the downstream tributaries, the Shasta, the Scott and Trinity. So much water is being diverted," said Crawford.

Upstream diversions

And it's not just the downstream diversions that have a hand to play, experts say. Water diversions above Upper Klamath Lake and outside the jurisdiction of the irrigation district are contributing to the depletion of the water source.

Iron Gate Dam, which controls all releases downriver from the Klamath Basin, is the last in a sequence of dams. Above this point, the Klamath Project makes up 57 percent of the agricultural diversions in that northern region.

The remaining 43 percent can be found in the Williamson and Sprague River valleys which provide half of the water flowing into to Upper Klamath Lake.

There, the pasturelands and cattle ranches make unbridled diversions. Because of an incomplete judication process for water rights, the state of Oregon has no legal ability to regulate their water consumption. During the 2001 drought, the irrigators above Upper Klamath Lake continued to tap into the headwaters of Klamath River.

"We see inflows during the summer months that really shock us how low they go, because water is being taken out above Klamath Lake ... We're getting saddled for responsibilities for everything in the whole basin," said Sabo.

Below Iron Gate Dam, the Klamath River, the second largest in the state of California, travels 200 miles before it reaches the Pacific Ocean. Along the way the Shasta, Scott, Salmon and Trinity rivers merge with the twisting giant. Over the last one-hundred years, the slow depredation of three-quarters of these tributaries has weakened the flows of the Klamath. The Salmon River, in the heart of Karuk country, is the only river tributary of the Klamath not diverted for agriculture.

The Scott and Shasta rivers, located above Happy Camp off Highway 196, are prime spawning grounds for salmon and provide suitable conditions for growing alfalfa and raising livestock. Irrigators in the Scott Valley are just as fearful that their livelihoods are at stake.

"The Scott doesn't have the volume to contribute to the Klamath as far as flow, but we are a major fish-rearing habitat," said Gary Black, of the Scott Valley's Resource Conservation District. Black said farmers are in support of the work but become defensive when finger-pointing occurs.

"There is a very hot, live fear that water is going to be taken away for the Endangered Species Act. There's going to be a definite showdown, but if it's reasonable we're on the right track," said Black.

Crawford does not know that this year's fish kill could have been prevented, but he says he knows there could have been a cure. By increasing the flows from Trinity River and decreasing the flows from Iron Gate Dam, Crawford believes the fish would have received higher flows and colder water. But finding a way to free more of Trinity's water is a complicated web to untangle.

Trinity's role

Since completion of the Lewiston and Trinity Dams in 1963, the Trinity River has lost up to 90 percent of its water to the largest irrigation district in the country, Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley. At the time of the fish kill, the water was tied up in litigation, and after a judge's ruling in December, it appears that water will continue to be redirected into the Sacramento River for use by farmers in the Central Valley.

"The Trinity River is a big issue because the water goes into the Central Valley Project and there's a lot of political horsepower there and people don't want to deal with that. It's a scary thing for them to mess with, but we'll continue to get blamed for everything that occurs in this whole thing even though we're a very small component of what's actually going on," said Sabo.

Even with uncertainty in the air, Crawford continues to go about business as usual, or as close to it as he can. He pulls into a dirt parking lot and checks on an employee moving some of this year's harvest from a conveyer belt to a squat metal storage shed. Inside the building a mountain of sweet, musty potatoes wait in storage before being shipped south where they will be turned into potato chips.

"We've been praying for rain, but we need to get these crops out at the same time. We're praying it starts tomorrow and doesn't stop until we need an ark," said Crawford last November as he filled a gunnysack with the large earth-covered spuds.

Some say the only real solution is to slowly discontinue farming in the arid basin. Conservation groups are proposing land buyouts in the region as a way to lessen the demand for water, but Crawford argues that would be detrimental to the small communities as well as the wildlife refuges that border the farms.

‘Something less than viable'

"I think a very comparable thing would be to take a percentage of land that was proposed and then you'd go down to Crescent City Harbor and buy that same percentage of fishing boats and take them away. What happens to the economy of that fishing community? What happens to the guy that's selling bait? What happens to the guy that's selling fuel? At some point in time, if you make it small enough ... you make it go away. The church can't operate. The school can't operate. The community becomes something less than viable. Plus, what is the fate of the land that's bought out?"

Crawford is concerned that land buyouts will mean hundreds of acres of land will become dry and unproductive, full of noxious weeds that will release their seeds onto neighboring fertile fields causing surrounding land to lose its resale value as well as its food-producing abilities for wildlife.

Another case Crawford disputes is that farmers need to be more conservative with their water usage. He said farming in the basin is 93-percent efficient. The water is rechanneled through the system seven times before it is used to flood the surrounding wildlife refuges or dumped back into the Klamath River. Crawford said the refuges would cease to exist if the project conserved any more than they already do because there would be no tail water for the wetlands who are on the bottom of the list when it comes to water rights.

"Given that we're as efficient as we are, it's not a desirable thing to conserve more water through the physical workings of the district, because it dries up the refuge. That is the end result," said Crawford.

Driving his Suburban along the rugged dirt roads that weave between his fields and the Fish and Wildlife refuges, Crawford points to a Canada goose landing in a potato field. The geese love the small mushy potatoes left behind after harvest.

"We give up a certain percentage of the crop for wildlife because that comes with the territory. I like being here. I like them being here, so we coexist, and I like to think we are both pretty happy about the whole thing."

Water banks

A water bank is one proposed solution that will help supply additional water for wildlife and tribal trust resources in drought years. But is it enough to make a substantial difference?

A water bank works by using four tools. Farmers on a rotating basis are compensated for leaving idle a portion of their land. Another solution is the use of groundwater to supplement irrigation needs. Crop shifting and using more water-conserving crops is another tool as well as developing new storage facilities in offstream sources.

The use of water banks is still in its infancy and many irrigators, still shaken by the severe drought conditions of 2001, are looking at the proposal cautiously.

Crawford supports any alternatives for delivering more water to fish and wildlife that won't pose threats to his farming practices.

The American Lands Conservancy has announced their agreement to purchase a piece of property near Upper Klamath Lake that could potentially be used to supplement downstream water needs.

The Barnes Ranch borders the 7,159-acre Agency Lake Ranch the Bureau of Reclamation purchased several years ago for water conservation reasons. If the deal goes through, the newly acquired piece could give an additional 3,000 acres to the bureau for water storage. It could also mean that the holding capacity for water would increase from 15,000 acre-feet to 35,000 or 45,000 acre-feet during years when there is substantial run off from Upper Klamath Lake.

"This has been the focus for quite awhile. I think it's one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle in solving the Klamath Basin problems," said Sabo. A century ago, the area was marshland before being converted to farmland. The bureau would return the land to its natural state, as a wetland, which would be beneficial to waterfowl and help meet the needs of fish.

Severe water shortage

The Klamath Project, although a small-scale operation compared to that of the Central Valley or the Colorado, may prove to be a model for ever-changing government philosophies. Decisions made here will likely influence future water management across the country.

"There is a severe water shortage in California that is only going to grow worse. Somewhere along the line there is not going to be enough to go around," said Byron Leydecker, governor of Cal-Trout, Inc. and an advocate for restoring the Trinity River.

Crawford, whose hands and neck are darkened from years of toiling in the harsh fields, is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue. But he is adamant in his belief that farming in the basin is sustainable and will provide food for generations while fish will continue to provide food for river and coastal communities.

"Do we want harm to come to the tribal folks, economic or social or cultural harm to come to those folks or come to the commercial fishing industry? Heck no. And at the same time we don't want them to wish that on us."

Coming Tuesday: The devastation of the fish kill takes a big toll on Yurok tribal members.