FFA group hears Klamath farmers

March 7, 2003

By Sharon Burke

For the Capital Press

Hillsboro, Oregon - Not knowing whether or not they will get water this year, Klamath Basin farmers spoke about their plight to about 100 Future Farmers of America members Friday night at Hillsboro High School.

"We know our problem is far from over," said Bill Ransom, member of the Klamath Bucket Brigade and spokesperson for the group. "We have a drought situation and we don't know whether we'll get help."

Ransom and six of his colleagues attended the 75th celebration of the FFA sponsored by the Washington County Area FFA organization, which consists of chapters in Banks, Sherwood, Forest Grove and Hillsboro.

"I heard them (the Klamath Basin farmers) speak at an event in Hermiston," said John Stables, advisor of the Hillsboro FFA chapter. "I think what they have to say is an important message and that the Columbia Basin could be next."

Back in April 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to cut off the Klamath farmers' water for irrigation and instead provided that water for fish. (This had a devastating impact on the wildlife refuges, which are downstream from the water cutoff.)

While the farmers received water last year, they remain unsure about this year's water supply.

They travel in their attempt to educate others on their situation.

The Klamath Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit organization, originally was formed to distribute $300,000 in donations, said Barbara Hall, a member.

"But now our focus is on education, especially on matters concerning the ESA (Endangered Species Act)," she said.

Another goal of the group is to identify what it says are lies and half truths provided by (self-proclaimed) environmentalists who agree with the federal Bureau of Reclamation's 'concerns' for the fish and wildlife in the Klamath Reclamation Project area, Hall added.

"They're blaming our (Klamath) basin for all the problems," Ransom said. "This just is not possible. We are not responsible for the fish kill. There is more water going down the river than before the dams were built. When you get rid of the flooding, you have a more steady flow all year round."

Originally built in the early 1900s, the dams in the area transformed Klamath Basin from a constant flooding problem to an area that could be farmed and managed.

In fact, dams were designed to provide more water for irrigation than that which is currently used, Ransom said.

"We only have about 240,000 acres of irrigated land in the area," Ransom said. "And we use a small percentage of the water available."

In 2002, farmers used 348,217 acre/feet of water, which is only 3.2 percent of the total amount, Ransom said.

The Klamath Reclamation project, which was designed to reuse water up to seven times, had a 95 percent efficiency rate and until 2001 had never dried up in 95 years, Ransom said.

As a way to get their message out and help other farmers facing the same problems with environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act, members of the Bucket Brigade took off on an early fall, 8,800 mile trip through 11 states.

"We received a request (in June 2002) from the Dade County Farm Bureau in Florida. Florida farmers and homeowners were having trouble with the Corps of Engineers. The Florida Farm Bureau was impressed by the way we handled our situation," Ransom said. "When we had our problem, we had a lot of people give us money and we felt as if we owed something back."

From September to October 2002, eight members traveled with a large bucket and shovel and made appearances in California, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

"Two of the tools that the pioneers had were a bucket and a shovel, and for us they symbolize property rights," Ransom said.

In every state where they made an appearance, the group met with state representatives and discussed the errors of the Endangered Species Act. "We advocated support of (less restrictive) amendments to the ESA," Ransom said. "Government does not need to own our land."

To pay for the $15,000 trip, members auctioned off shovels and buckets. While the Dade County (Fla.) Farm Bureau changed its mind about meeting with the group, Ransom said he still thought it was a successful trip.

"We let people know that there is someone out there who can help," Ransom said. "We accomplished a common thread throughout the country and made contacts with a number of groups."