PORTLAND, Ore. — One of the worst droughts in memory in a massive agricultural region straddling the California-Oregon border could mean steep cuts to irrigation water for hundreds of farmers this summer to sustain endangered fish species critical to local tribes. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees water allocations in the federally owned Klamath Project, is expected to announce this week how the season’s water will be divvied up after delaying the decision a month.
For the first time in 20 years, the 1,400 irrigators who have farmed for generations on 225,000 acres (91,000 hectares) of reclaimed farmland may get no water at all — or so little that farming wouldn’t be worth it. Several tribes in Oregon and California are equally desperate for water to sustain threatened and endangered fish species central to their heritage. A network of six wildlife refuges that make up the most significant wetland complex west of the Mississippi River also depends on the project’s water but will likely go dry this year.
The competing demands over a vanishing natural resource foreshadow a tense and challenging summer in a region where farmers, conservationists, and tribes have engaged in years of legal battles over who has greater rights to an ever-dwindling water supply. Two of the tribes, the Klamath and Yurok, hold treaties guaranteeing the protection of their fisheries. The last — and only — time that water was completely shut down for irrigators.
2001, some family farms went out of business. A “bucket brigade” protest attracted 15,000 people who scooped water from the Klamath River and passed it, hand over hand, to a parched irrigation canal. The farmers-vs.-fish debate became a touchstone for Republicans who used the crisis to aim the Endangered Species Act. One GOP lawmaker called the irrigation shutoff a “poster child” for why changes were needed.
This season, amid a pandemic and an ever-deeper partisan divide, some in the region fear what’s to come.
“I think that the majority of people understand that acts of violence and protest aren’t going to be productive, but at the same time, people down here are being backed into a corner,” said Ben DuVal, a farmer and president of the Klamath Water Users Association. “There’s a lot of farms that need a good stable year this year — myself included — and we’re not going to get that this year. I’m questioning the future.”
The situation in the Klamath Basin was set in motion more than a century ago when the U.S. government began drawing water from a network of shallow lakes and marshlands and funneling it into the desert uplands. Homesteads were offered by lottery to World War II veterans who grew hay, grain, potatoes, and pastured cattle.
The project turned the region into an agricultural powerhouse — some of its potato farmers supply In ‘N Out burger — but permanently altered an intricate water system that spans hundreds of miles from southern Oregon to Northern California.
In 1988, two species of suckerfish were listed as endangered under federal law, and less than a decade later, coho salmon that spawn downstream from the reclamation project in the lower Klamath River were listed as threatened.