Klamath Basin crisis: one year later


(Note: Where are those groups and individuals who call themselves 'environmentalists' when the wildlife and the plants and all that makes the Klamath Basin what it IS, are dying for a sip of water? Possible answer: They could be holding out for a lower price, even, than the $50 an acre that the land is now worth. 'One dry year' did NOT cause this terrible time: consider the REAL reasons. Honest answer: the farmers in the Klamath Basin are NOT the bad guys.)


August 10, 2002


By Bruce Pokarney


After spending some time talking and listening to farmers in the Klamath Basin this year, it’s not hard to understand the feeling of uneasiness that hovers over the community.

One year after a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to shut off water to irrigators for protection of endangered fish, many of the 1,400 agricultural producers that rely on the Klamath Project are still hurting and nearly out of business. Others are just simply a bit skeptical of what the future holds -- even as assurances are made that the water will continue flowing from Upper Klamath Lake this summer.

Many still wonder if the spigot will be shut off again sometime soon.

“Our community got hit hard last year,” says local farmer Tracey Liskey. “If the water gets shut off early this summer, there may not be any spud farms left down here.”

It’s easy to find hard luck tales of farm families who have had to sell part or all of what they had owned: Equipment, livestock, perhaps even the farm itself.

“I’m a survivor at this point,” says Steve Kandra, whose family has farmed in the basin since the early 1900s. “But I had to cover three generations of equity. I had to get the necessary loans and reassure the bankers. We are on our last run and 2002 will make or break 92 years of farming for my family.”

Kandra can point to his own grain production as an example of why the water is so important. After getting access to wells on the California side of his farm last year, he was able to produce 142 bushels of wheat from fields irrigated with ten inches of water. On the Oregon side where irrigation was not possible, he hauled in only six bushels.

“That’s all I wanted — ten damn inches of water,” says Kandra.

Planting decisions had to be made, as usual, in the early spring at the latest. With a shaky degree of confidence about water availability later in the year, producers made the decision to go ahead and put the money into the ground. Since row crops require more water than grains, it is the row crop farmer that is rolling the dice.

The shock wave from last year’s cutoff is still being felt in areas other than agriculture. The Klamath Project holds some 1000 miles of seasonal wetlands. Wildlife not only depend on the water, they often get their food from nearby farmers’ fields. It appears the birds are back, but at a cost from last year.

“On my farm, I have 30 or 40 miles of exposed water,” says Kandra. “Usually, you can find a duck every other couple of yards. “Last year, there were no birds or other creatures to be seen. The greatest travesty of all was the ultimate impact the shutoff had on wildlife.”

The way many of the locals see it, saving water for two species of fish adversely affected hundreds of other wildlife species.

Last year’s cutoff allowed the establishment of weeds in canals and ditches. Even with water flowing this year, weed seeds left from 2001 are still choking some of the waterways in 2002. The landscape has changed, all because of one dry year. ["all because of one dry year" Is THAT the only/main reason? I don't think so!]

Then there is the impact on local schools and business. With a majority of students in the town of Merrill being Hispanic, there was a sizable drop in the numbers this year as families dependent on agricultural jobs left town to find work elsewhere -- the kids in tow.

Some local businesses in the basin dried up from last year’s lack of water. Others suffered dearly and are still on the hook for a drop in paying customers.

“It has been a rough year,” says Bob Gasser, who operates Basin Fertilizer in Merrill. The agricultural supplier reports a decrease of 70% in sales. “People who have paid me for 27 years have been unable to settle their bills. Do I tell them no this year? I can’t. But we do have our necks way out there. Employees are scared and are looking at other possible jobs. The next two or three years will really tell. We need to keep the water flowing.”

Another ill-timed issue involves power rates in the region. The Klamath Project is going through relicensing and the low cost power enjoyed by everyone could disappear. A tenfold increase in rates is not out of the question. Running the necessary equipment to pump water from wells could become cost-prohibitive.

However, with water available so far this summer, farmers have gone back to work. No longer do they have the time to continue the education and outreach that helped sway a great deal of public opinion on the issues surrounding the Klamath Basin. For many, that is worrisome.

“We have to get back to work, our kids still need to go to college,” says Gasser. “So we are not pushing the issues in the public like we did last year.”

Somehow, they still try to find enough time to speak -- to reporters, to civic groups in the Willamette Valley, to anyone they feel needs to hear the truth.

A recent visit by the State Board of Agriculture and staff from the Oregon Department of Agriculture featured a detailed afternoon tour of the Klamath Project with the hope that a better understanding would strengthen the board’s support and advocacy in the future.

The tours and the talks are usually concluded with a plea.

“Give our farmers ways to stay in business,” says Liskey. “Keep our community whole. So many depend on agriculture to continue.”

Many local farmers have had to stick with it one more year, even if they wanted to get out. Some land [that was] valued at $2,500 an acre before last year [has] dropped to as low as $50 an acre. Even with those low prices, buyers cannot be located.

“We are united again this year,” says Gasser. “Most people want to keep farming.”

If only they could shake this feeling of paralyzing uncertainty which pervades despite the fact that water is flowing again — for now.