TOPICS > Science

Fish vs. Farmers

August 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


LEE HOCHBERG: The latest skirmish over the endangered species act is being fought on the high desert of the Oregon/California border. (Cheers and applause ) It pits farmers, like these on horseback, against the bony 20- to 40-inch fish called the sucker, and the federal law which protects it and other endangered species. There’s been high emotions…

SPOKESMAN: That means Americans are in trouble.

LEE HOCHBERG: …And high rhetoric.

SPOKESMAN: They’ve taken away our water, and they’ve taken away a way of life.

LEE HOCHBERG: The battle has been marked by symbols of distress.

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Bush, that flag is upside down for a reason. We need help. We’ve got a government that run amok.

CROWD: Here, here.

CROWD: There it is.

CROWD: Yeah!

LEE HOCHBERG: And the battle’s been fought with illegal actions. Farmers have been seething since April, when the federal government denied water to 1,300 of them who use it to grow crops in a climate that gets only 12 inches of rain a year.

DEMONSTRATORS: We want water! We want water! We want water!

LEE HOCHBERG: A drought this year has water levels low in the Klamath River Basin. That includes Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon and the Klamath River, which drains through California to the pacific. Scientists say the endangered sucker fish in the lake, and the threatened Coho salmon downstream, need as much water as possible to survive. But the farmers say they need the Klamath’s water as well. Because of the Endangered Species Act, passed 28 years ago to protect species in trouble, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the fish trump the farmers.

GARY DERRY: It’s pretty tough to make a living growing crops when you don’t have water.

LEE HOCHBERG: Farmers like Gary Derry say they’ve been decimated by the ruling. Gary usually grows 500 acres of alfalfa. This year, with his irrigation water cut off, two thirds of his field has gone dry.

GARY DERRY: It’s devastating. I don’t know how you can do this to this country, to this land that we have nurtured all our lives. When my daughter asked me why aren’t the sprinklers running, it’s a hard thing to try to explain to an eight-year-old girl. It’s hard to explain to myself.

LEE HOCHBERG: Klamath Basin farmers say the federal government promised them water 100 years ago when it authorized the Klamath River Reclamation Project. It dammed the river so extra water for irrigation could be stored in Klamath Lake. It drained marshes to create 230,000 acres of arable land, and urged farmers to come west to homestead it. Derry’s grandfather came from Iowa.

GARY DERRY: Until the Endangered Species Act come along, we never had a water… even a shortage. This is an opinion that they’re shoving down our throat. This project’s been here a hundred years, and I don’t see any species extinct yet.

LEE HOCHBERG: Government biologists answer that effluents from years of farming have choked upper Klamath Lake with algae that’s killed 90% of the lake’s adult sucker fish. The fish used to widely populate the west, but Klamath Lake is one of only three in which it survives today. Biologist Ron Larson:

RON LARSON: These fish were tremendously abundant. I mean, I think it’s hard for people to imagine these days how numerous they were. But now we’ve had these fish kills, and the whole system is, you know… It’s almost like an airplane, and if you started pulling out the rivets of an airplane, eventually the wings are going to fall apart and the plane is going to crash.

LEE HOCHBERG: Scientists believe leaving more water in the lake might help. But for farmers, that’s meant watching their fields parch under the hot sun. Many have themselves begun to boil. Several dozen took the law into their own hands. They cut through a chain link fence and cracked open the head gates that hold back lake water. Hundreds of millions of gallons that were supposed to be saved for the fish rushed down canals toward farms. Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger made no effort to stop the actions.

SHERIFF TIM EVINGER: My obligation is to protect the people of this county and to protect their way of life. The Endangered Species Act is not mine to enforce.

LEE HOCHBERG: With local authorities unwilling to help, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation had to come in to shut the gates down. Park Service police came to guard them. But three times since, farmers have returned to wrench open t waters.

SPOKESMAN: For the time being, let them know that this water is more important than a little sucker fish.

LEE HOCHBERG: Since then, farmers have brought in a pump and a large pipe, and are diverting water out of the lake as an ongoing protest. (Cheers and applause) Conservative activists from across the country have congregated at the site, making it ground zero in the fight against the Endangered Species Act. Farming generates only 1% of personal income in Klamath County, and many farmers, who had the foresight to put in private water wells, have lush crops this summer. (Auctioneer calling bids) But those dependent on irrigation have been hit hard. Ranchers unable to grow or buy feed for their cattle have been forced to dump their herds at auction. Gary Voight sold 16 of his cattle. He says he’ll send many more of his herd of 200 to slaughter.

GARY VOIGHT: They don’t deserve to go to the slaughterhouse, okay? They’re healthy cows, they’re efficient cows, they’ve worked this range for years. They shouldn’t be going anywhere. But without water, there’s no way to grow anything. We feel like we’ve been betrayed.

LEE HOCHBERG: But as locals attack the Endangered Species Act for putting fish up against farmers, others say the law isn’t to blame.

ANDY KERR: The Endangered Species Act is a convenient whipping person for the… Their concerns, but it’s not the real problem.

LEE HOCHBERG: Conservationist Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council says many Klamath farmers were having money troubles even before water was curtailed because crop prices are so low.

ANDY KERR: If there wasn’t endangered species issues in the Klamath Basin, there would be farmers going quietly broke, but it wouldn’t be on national TV.

LEE HOCHBERG: And the government says while it sympathizes with the farmers, the real problem in the Klamath Basin is tremendous demand on little water. Pat Foulk is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

PAT FOULK: We’re frankly getting into an ecological disaster, and this has not happened overnight. The suckers in Klamath Lake were listed 13 years ago. There have been water curtailments in the Klamath Project several times since 1992. The issue is not two fish and a community. The issue is a broken ecosystem upon which this community survives.

LEE HOCHBERG: Indeed, at the same time farmers have profited from their access to water, others in the basin have been suffering from a lack of it. Commercial fishermen haven’t been able to harvest Coho Salmon because there have been inadequate water flows for that fish. Glen Spain represents West Coast Fishermen.

GLENN SPAIN: You can’t keep closing fishermen down forever when they’re not the cause of the problem. When the upper basin farmers and the irrigation projects have taken too much of the water, they’re the people who have caused the problem, and that’s where the solution has to be.

LEE HOCHBERG: And native Americans used to depend on the sucker fish for ritual and for food, until the lake’s bad water drove it onto the endangered list. Joe Hobbs of the Klamath tribe:

JOE HOBBS: We stopped taking these fish in 1986, so it’s been 15 years that we have not had that part of our economy. The need we have for the suckers is just as important as the water that the irrigators need down there.

LEE HOCHBERG: Land managers add that even other wildlife besides the sucker and salmon is suffering a lack of water. Irrigation water from farmers’ fields drains into two of the nation’s largest waterfowl refuges. They’re habitats for millions of migrating pelicans and herons and bald eagles. This year, with irrigation stopped, there’s only one-fifth the usual water on the refuge. Manager Phil Norton:

PHIL NORTON: You’re going to have wildlife crowding into secondary habitat. You’re going to have a lot more competition. You’re going to have overcrowding. You’ll have some disease, you’ll have a lot more predation, and you’ll have birds that become more emaciated.

SPOKESMAN: It is an unspeakable tragedy.

LEE HOCHBERG: Political leaders have flocked to Oregon in search of solutions.

SPOKESMAN: The government must represent we, the people.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon Senator Gordon Smith proposed exempting the Klamath Basin from the Endangered Species Act, but Congress rejected the proposal. (Cheers and applause) Late last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service said lake levels are higher than had been predicted, and ordered 20% of the normal water stream restored to the farmers. It may help salvage alfalfa and hay crops, but it’s too late to save potato and other fields. Environmentalists promptly filed suit in federal court, saying any extra water should be diverted to the wildlife refuge, under terms of the Endangered Species Act. Conservationist Kerr says the best solution is a plan he’s working on with farmers to have the federal government buy up about half of the basin’s farmland.

ANDY KERR: There are a lot of farmers and landowners who are ready to get out of farming. By buying these lands from willing sellers, you can reduce the demand for irrigation water in the Klamath Project.

LEE HOCHBERG: The farmers will ask congress for $750 million to pay for their farms. But some, like Gary Derry, don’t like the idea.

GARY DERRY: I’m not looking for a way out. I want to make a living doing what I’m doing.

LEE HOCHBERG: In the meantime, Congress has approved $20 million in emergency aid for the farmers. But local officials estimate losses in the basin could be more than $200 million.