Basin shouldn't be Owens Valley II: Los Angeles used divide-and-conquer strategy to seize water; resist that here


(Note: Excellent!)


March 23, 2003


By Dan Keppen

Executive Director, Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA)



The Herald and News

Klamath Falls, Oregon

To submit a Letter to the Editor:


In the past year, West Coast environmental groups have drawn attention to the 100th anniversary of the Reclamation Act of 1902 and proclaimed that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must be reformed to better protect the environment and "those whose livelihoods depend on abundant fisheries and healthy rivers."

These recent actions, coupled with related efforts to divide the Klamath Reclamation Project irrigator community, ironically serve to divert attention from another tragic incident that occurred a century ago -- the subversive and successful attempt by Los Angeles developers to wrest water from Owens Valley farmers.

A now-familiar proposal that has been dormant since last summer emerged again recently when the Oregon Natural Resources Council sent letters to Project landowners urging that they contact congressional representatives in support of a massive land buyout program. To no one's surprise, ONRC has repackaged its "new" solution once again to entice farmers to leave the Project.

The ONRC claims its scheme would compensate property owners at a rate "nearly three times" the market value of their land. This "win-win" solution is offered up after dedicating four pages of the letter to a summary of the woes facing Basin farmers. What ONRC does not disclose is its direct involvement in driving many of the very issues it uses to justify the tragic situation Basin farmers face.

The proposals are designed to divide and conquer the agricultural community. Opponents of the buyout are concerned that businesses in the farm community could be forced to close or relocate if the large-scale sale of farmland becomes a reality.

Many questions

The Klamath Water Users Association has many questions about the presumed water supply benefits that have been touted.

Outside interests -- who wish to eliminate the Project and "return" productive farmland to an idealistic "natural" state -- have infiltrated the community and have gathered a small group of financially desperate, emotionally depressed and morally discouraged farmers into their fold.

As Bonanza rancher Mike Connelly has noted, the community is now at war with itself, weakening itself, which will ultimately make it that much easier for opponents of irrigated agriculture to achieve their desired results.

Are proponents of a downsized Klamath Project really concerned about us?

A partial list of the actions undertaken by ONRC and its allies in the past year alone provides a sense of their concern for the welfare of our local community:

The ONRC and others sued three Klamath Basin irrigation districts for discharging aquatic herbicide into public canals, alleging violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

In April 2002, the ONRC promoted an announcement made by American Rivers -- an environmental advocacy group from Washington, D.C. -- claiming that the Klamath River was the third-most "endangered" waterway in the country.

The ONRC and other special interests were party to a failed lawsuit last April seeking a temporary restraining order to immediately reduce water to Project irrigators. In late September, the ONRC and other environmental advocates filed an amended complaint, which will be heard next month in Oakland, Calif.

Last May, the ONRC joined a coalition of activist groups that filed an unsuccessful petition with the Oregon Water Resources Commission to halt further appropriation of water from the Klamath and Lost River basins.

In October, the ONRC supported federal legislation that would reallocate Project water downstream to increase Klamath River flows, thereby depriving the Project and national wildlife refuges of water supplies in one of every three years.

The ONRC and other environmental groups announced in January that they intend to petition to protect four species of lamprey under the Endangered Species Act. A federal scientific panel rejected a petition filed by the same groups last year to protect the green sturgeon.

Of course, Project irrigators -- that deplete only 2 percent of the annual average Klamath River flows that empty into the Pacific -- know only too well who will bear the burden of "recovering" new Klamath River fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

These types of tactics, unfortunately, provide yet another example of the types of subterfuge used to devastating effect 100 years ago in the Owens Valley.

Everyone in the West is familiar with the story of how Los Angeles power moguls diverted water from the rural Owens Valley to support the growth of urban southern California.

While there is a widely held view that Los Angeles simply went out to the Owens Valley and stole its water, everything the city did was legal.

As the late Mark Reisner explains in "Cadillac Desert," Los Angeles employed a "campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies to get the water it needed."

In the end, the Owens Valley agricultural community was "milked bone-dry" and impoverished, while the water made a number of Los Angeleans very rich. Ironically, some of the earliest arrivals to the Klamath Project were farmers who could no longer work in the Owens Valley, drawn to an area of government-assured water supplies.

Parallels 'chilling'

The parallels between what happened to the Owens Valley and what is happening in the Klamath Basin are chilling.

While the Owens Valley community was the target of urban interests, Klamath Project irrigators are now the ones in the sights of environmental advocates who would like Project farmland to revert to the its state prior to the arrival of Europeans. In both instances, well-funded and politically connected outside interests used their resources to target a small, relatively powerless community that didn't want to give its water away.

We must continue to uphold the traditions that made this country great by caring for its citizens and the environment. We must work diligently to find real solutions to the Klamath Basin crisis and determine if the acquisition of family farms and ranches is an appropriate part of the solution.

But whether the federal government should spend a $100 million, simply to shrink the Klamath Project is a policy issue of major significance for our community, no less than the government's decision to cut off water for farmers in 2001. Such a sum of money could do much more for all interests in the watershed.

If the problem is simply avoiding another farm crisis, then buying out these families will succeed: Once they're gone, there won't be anyone left to complain about the lack of water. If the goal is to recover listed species -- and to sustain an agricultural economy -- then the solution must be comprehensive; all of the impacts that harm these species must be addressed. We must redirect our collective energies to this task, before all hope of fruitful coexistence dies and the Owens Valley debacle is resurrected in our own Basin.


Copyright 2003, Herald and News.