Klamath Basin water wars changed engagement rules

Few articles generate responses like the one about the Klamath water crisis in a recent Western Farm Press edition. Bob Gasser's emotional account of what happened when the federal government cut off water supplies to Klamath Basin farmers two years ago generated requests for posting on other Web sites. It also brought several e-mails offering widely different and emotional viewpoints.

The story was about how farmers say they were betrayed by their government when irrigation water was abruptly cut off at the beginning of the irrigation season, ostensibly to save “endangered” fish; where federal marshals had to guard head gates against the actions of irate farm families; where public protest became the unlikely but desperate tool for typically quiet farmers to create public awareness; where Indians were pitted against non-Indians. It was such an emotional and heated action that Gasser said in hindsight it was fortunate no one was seriously hurt or killed.

It has evolved into one of the most emotion-charged water issues in the long running Western water war saga.

The water is back on in Klamath. However, the crisis has not passed for farmers along the Oregon/California border. Rural life will never be the same in the Klamath Basin. When farmers, townspeople and the agribusiness community slammed down the gauntlet against the federal government, it signaled a new, more highly charged era in the water wars and for the Endangered Species Act.

Klamath was the first volley. The second has been fired at the other end of California in Imperial County, where residents of what the mass media is fond of identifying as the “poorest county in California” has had the audacity to tell the rich folks in Southern California that they are not going to give up their water without a fight — or at least some serious cash and concrete promises that Imperial Valley will not become another Owens Valley.

Farmers in the Palo Verde Valley in nearby Riverside County have said the same thing.

Residents of Imperial and Palo Verde valleys have made it clear they are not willing to sacrifice their futures for thirsty Southern California urban dwellers.

The Klamath crisis may have given Imperial and Palo Verde and others the encouragement to dig in their heels. For certain, what happened in Klamath has sent cold chills down the spines of many farmers who have come to fully realize that what happened in Klamath can happen anywhere at any time with no notice.

There are at least a dozen water/Endangered Species Act/wildlife habit issues on the table in California. Each directly affects farmers and ranchers.

Typically, these issues drag on for years; are subject to many lawsuits and endless hours of meetings to try to reach settlements.

The Klamath water crisis added a most unsettling element to that scenario: The government can also act precipitously to cut off irrigation water to any farmer or region any time it wants.

Klamath farmers knew that was a possibility, but it seemed so unrealistic that they never expected the government to really cut off their water.

Their government did, and it forever changed the rules of the water game in the West.

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