Klamath diagnosis a warning for future


(Note: This article that calls the report 'impartial' seeks to divide and enflame by its very structure and content. The old 'divide and conquer' technique ala Delphi is alive and well in this article as it is in the report.)


December 19, 2002


By Michael Milsteiin


To submit a Letter to the Editor: co@eaglenewspapers.com


Emergency wells, government aid and local determination let the Klamath Basin escape serious economic hurt during the summer of 2001, when wildlife protections left farms little of their normal irrigation water from the federal Klamath Project, an Oregon State University analysis concludes.

Farmers fumed Tuesday over a finding that estimates their 2001 bottom line, basinwide, as somewhere between an $11 million hit and a $10 million profit. The minimal estimates fly in the face of $250 million in losses some had estimated during emotional protests that drew national attention two summers ago.

"My blood just boils when I hear that," said Bill Heiney, who farms 450 acres just south of the Oregon-California line and lost more than $250,000 when he went without water. "It's going to take me 20 years to get out from under that. It took me 20 years to make it."

More than a year in the making, the 400-page examination of the Klamath water crisis also found that competing demands for the region's limited water were heading toward a collision during a severe drought. But conflicting interests and agencies without unified leadership did little to intervene.

If those interests do not find fair and lasting ways to divide water, "the conflicts of 2001 are destined to be repeated in the Basin and elsewhere," says the report, released Tuesday and written by professors and others at Oregon State and the University of California.

The water cutoff and inflammatory media coverage polarized communities, driving wedges between government workers, Native American tribes, farmers, conservationists and fishermen, it said. To find a solution, the report says, "the legitimate interests of Native Americans, irrigators and endangered species all must be recognized and considered."

Among the top findings: Assorted state and federal laws and tribal treaties, as well as agencies with opposing aims, created a context for contention, not cooperation. Oregon's slow progress in dividing water rights in the Upper Basin north of Klamath Falls leaves it unclear who owns what water, hampering water trades or purchases to offset water deficits. Scientists don't understand all the intricacies of the Klamath ecosystem, so they rely on fragmented knowledge and professional judgment in deciding how much water fish need. The eleventh-hour cutoff to farmers at the beginning of spring planting compounded social and economic costs, making them more difficult to remedy. The water cutoff shifted the burden of the basin's failing water quality and other environmental problems to farmers from the fishermen and tribes who had witnessed the decline of fish they once depended on. While government payments and other assistance helped many farms weather the loss of water, others -- migrant laborers, tenant farmers and suppliers -- got little help.

The report was meant as a comprehensive, impartial look at the causes and effects of the federal decision to reserve water in Upper Klamath Lake for endangered suckers there and threatened salmon in the Klamath River. Little water remained for the more than 1,000 farms in the 220,000-acre Klamath Project.

Sections of the report examine the impacts on fish and wildlife, plus the social and dollar costs to the basin. Each section was reviewed by all of the 29 authors who contributed to the report, said Teresa Welch, its editor.

But authors cautioned that their study did not count long-term costs of the water shortage such as depressed land values and canceled contracts for crops that may haunt farmers for years. In averaging effects across the basin, the analysis also may have lost sight of farms hit especially hard.

"No one person is the economy," said Ron Hathaway, an Oregon State professor based in Klamath Falls who worked on the report. "There are individuals here who lived through this and had experiences from devastation to doing about as well as they usually do."

Conservation and fishermen's groups said the findings show that drought assistance to farmers worked, a better solution than using the water fish needed to irrigate farms.

"We shouldn't try to sacrifice the fish, as well as the Native American and commercial fishing communities that depend on them, in order to maintain a broken system," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Farmers did much on their own to minimize the costs of the cutoff, the analysis found. Some sought loans for emergency wells to keep crops going, others leased land with water, while others switched to crops that demand less water. Such steps reduced the basin's losses by an estimated $57 million.

"The resourcefulness and resiliency of these folks certainly dampened the economic consequences," Hathaway said. "They didn't sit around and say, 'Woe is us.' "

The report is available on the Web at http://eesc.oregonstate.edu/agcomwebfile/edmat/html/sr/sr1037/sr1037.html