Ten years later, some Klamath growers see faint ray of hope
By TIM HEARDEN
Steve Kandra will always remember the date April 6, 2001.
That day, he and other farmers in the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California were notified they wouldn't be getting water deliveries that season. On top of that, his father-in-law died.
"That was a heavy day," said Kandra, a hay and grain farmer from Merrill, Ore., who later led a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to have the water turned back on.
"It was a time of a lot of stress," the former Klamath Irrigation District president said. "There was a lot of time, effort and anguish within personal relationships and within family."
Ten years ago this April, hundreds of farming operations in the basin were thrown into peril when federal regulators tapped the Upper Klamath Lake to provide adequate stream flows for fish.
In separate biological opinions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service recommended allocating virtually all of the usable water in the lake for instream uses such as endangered suckers, salmon and other fish listed in Oregon and California.
The move caused an instant upheaval in a region that has produced potatoes, alfalfa, horseradish and cattle for more than a century. A "bucket brigade" protest at one of the Klamath irrigation project's main headgates drew national attention.
That summer, some protesters set up an encampment at the gates as a constant reminder of their plight, at one point forcing the gates open before U.S. marshals secured them.
In August, convoys from throughout the West came as thousands attended a "Freedom Day" parade down Main Street in Klamath Falls, followed by a rally at the Klamath County Fairgrounds.
By then, U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton had announced partial delivery of water to Klamath irrigators, although irrigation district managers said a late-season release of less than 20 percent of contract water delivery would not help much. About 1,200 farms denied the season's water allocations made do that summer with a scattering of wells keeping a fraction of the 200,000 acres green.
The idea for the "bucket brigade" came after landowners in Jarbidge, Nev., orchestrated a "shovel brigade" to reopen a county road the U.S. Forest Service had closed as part of the government's roadless areas policy.
"I had worked on property rights issues with the shovel brigade," said Marcia Armstrong, a former executive director of the Siskiyou County, Calif., Farm Bureau, who is now a county supervisor.
"It was so abrupt," Armstrong said of the water shutoff. "We had migrant people showing up for farm labor work and no one had told them ahead of time so they were stranded. People were losing their farms and ranches. They had mortgages they had to pay and no crops to pay them with."
Among those symbolically passing buckets was Debra Crisp, a past executive director of the Tulelake, Calif., Growers Association.
"It was symbolic of the importance of the project and the need for the water," Crisp said. "We had a group of horsemen riding their horses with upside-down American flags to symbolize a community in distress. We all know what that means."
Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger found himself in an international spotlight that summer. Tasked with keeping protesters outside a fence at the headgates and maintaining order, Evinger said he was approached several times by federal agencies requesting that he deputize their employees.
"I adamantly refuse to deputize federal agents to this day," he said. "It demonstrated to me why there's such an importance on separation between local and federal government."
But it was a speech that Evinger gave at the encampment that raised a furor. He recalls telling federal officials that their presence was "escalating the situation" and that local law enforcement could handle it. Headlines soon screamed of a local sheriff who told the feds to leave town.
"I did interviews with German radio, interviews in the U.K., on CNN and multiple times on Fox News," he said. "Keep in mind that I was elected in 2001 and took office in January 2001. I was not only figuring out where my office was, I was navigating a very complex political and economic disaster.
"From my perspective, it was like walking through a minefield every day for the protesters on both sides of the issue, for the federal agents and for myself," he said. "Nobody stepped on a mine. Everyone kept all their limbs. ... Nobody was hurt. That was the goal, and I don't think we could have done anything better."
Crisp recalled that some people took their frustrations out on front-line Bureau of Reclamation officials, when in fact it was those higher up that were responsible for the shutoff.
Armstrong said the crisis did little to lessen what she calls the "extraordinary" regulatory burden placed on rural landowners, particularly those adjacent to public lands.
But Kandra sees perhaps a ray of hope. As a result of his lawsuit, he and other stakeholders were ordered into mediation, which helped them form relationships that later led to the current Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, he said.
"It was an interesting time to see who did what and how people reacted to it," Kandra said. "We know that the next step will be dealing with the legislative part (of the KBRA) and Congress, which will be difficult in these times, but we're working toward that.
"This is a long-term problem that we've been working with," he said. "I assume it will take a lot of effort to basically get our work done."