Not since Shay's Rebellion has a popular uprising against the government
enjoyed such jaunty press coverage. When a militant band of irrigators
in the Klamath River basin of southern Oregon thumbed their noses
at the Bureau of Reclamation
and illegally diverted water into their fields of alfalfa, politicians
such as Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith rushed to their side, calling them
Press accounts portrayed the irrigators as hard-scrabble farmers,
versed in the values of Jefferson's agrarian democracy, defending
their livelihood against an out-of-control federal government. Even
Willie Nelson and his FarmAid organization forwarded messages of
solidarity. To top it off, there was near unanimous agreement that
the proximate blame for the farmers' dire straits resided with the
unfortunately named suckerfish.
The battle of the Klamath rests on a number of myths, perhaps none
so frail as the
supposed plight of the farmers themselves. It has been widely reported
that the feds' decision to shut off irrigation water to the farmers
put 1,400 farms in jeopardy. It should be remembered, however, that
the irrigation district was heavily subsidized by the federal government,
which not only footed most of the bills, but turned the Klamath
National Wildlife Refuge into croplands for the farmers.
Supporters from accross the
country sent bottles of water
to the Klamath farmers.
As much as the Klamath farmers decry the federal government, their
farms exist almost solely because of generous federal handouts.
Indeed, the dams, irrigation canals and headgates were all constructed
with federal money, which they partially paid back by growing crops
on federal land. "The debt the Klamath water users owed the United
States came to about $70 million for project construction with no
interest," says Phil Doe, a former environmental compliance officer
for the Bureau of Reclamation.
The Klamath refuge's once-extensive marshlands provide one of the
most important bird habitats in the world. More than 2 million birds
stop here to feed and rest during spring and fall migrations. Plus,
more than 1,000 eagles, one of the densest populations in North
America, roost here every year. Drained of water and parched by
drought, those marshlands have now been transformed into a fissured
bed of caked mud, with dust devils rising off land that should be
the hunting ground of herons and osprey.
While the suckerfish, once a staple in the diet of the Klamath
tribes, gets all the attention, the Klamath River also once boasted
the most robust salmon fishery south of the Columbia River. No more.
Dams, withdrawals for irrigation and toxic runoff from chemical
agriculture have destroyed the fishery. The water in the once crystalline
streams is now murky, algae-clotted and emits a putrid odor.
The Klamath coho salmon has landed on the Endangered
Species List, and the commercial salmon fishery has been put
out of business largely by the upstream irrigators. "Those farmers
are water robbers," says Tom Stockley, a former commercial salmon
fisherman from Eureka, California. "Commercial fishermen have given
up, given up, given up. I think it's time for someone else to give
The salmon fishermen aren't the only locals who are unimpressed
by the belligerence of the farmers. Bonanza, Oregon--a small town
inside the basin itself--was once known for the purity of its water,
which gushed forth from dozens of springs near town. Now the town's
water supply is contaminated with toxins, algae and coliform bacteria.
Residents must boil their drinking water and add bleach to their
bathwater. The culprit: the Klamath farmers, whose toxic runoff
has contaminated the town's wells and natural springs.
At the end of August, the town decided to sue the Klamath
Basin Irrigation District. It wasn't an easy decision to make.
Each time the problem was debated at City Council meetings, the
Klamath farmers would show up en masse. "Whenever we have meetings,
we get shouted down, overpowered," Former Bonanza City Councilman
Bob Hoylman told the Portland Oregonian. Hoylman said that
he finally resigned his position because of the rising tensions
and death threats: "These people, they're out for blood."
Doe recalls urging his bosses at the Bureau of Reclamation to close
the Klamath refuge to farmers more than a decade ago. "But no one
wanted to do it," he says. "The payments for the leasing of wildlife
refuge land were used to pay down the debt on the construction of
the Klamath basin irrigation infrastructure--the same system that
is destroying the refuge. Does it get any better than that? But
now look at the ugly situation you've got: you're losing salmon,
suckerfish, eagles, and you've poisoned the water quality in the
entire basin. To those who argue that we need to help the Klamath
irrigators out in their hour of need, maybe even buy them replacement
land, I say, save it for those who really need it and deserve it."