Fluid Values: Battles Over Water Rights

Photograph | Peter Essick/Aurora
Photograph | Peter Essick/Aurora

IN SPRINGTIME, THE KLAMATH BASIN, an intensively farmed enclave in the high desert along the Oregon-California border, can feel like a fruit-crate-label idyll brought to life. Lush, furrowed farms spread wide beneath the snowy flanks of Mount Shasta. The thousand-odd farmers here raise western staples such as cattle and wheat, grow horseradish and mint, supply potatoes to Frito-Lay — and, not so long ago, grew barley for Budweiser.

But a spray-painted question on a hay shed’s roof shouts what is constantly at the forefront of everyone’s minds: GOT WATER?

On a bright January morning, in a garage just a stone’s throw from that hay shed, Dave Cacka — zipped up in a pair of coveralls with his name embroidered on a patch — is preparing an enormous pesticide spray-buggy for this year’s work.

Cacka (pronounced CHATCH-kuh) raised potatoes and grain for a bruising thirty-one years. “You’d get a couple bad years” when crop prices were low, he says, “but you’d always have that good year come along, and you’d heal up.” In 1995, Cacka’s father, who’d farmed with his son for many years, finally quit. Cacka, who is now fifty-four, says that “was the year I should’ve quit.” In 1996 the price of potatoes dropped to $1.50 per hundred-pound sack, the worst price since the Depression. The following several years weren’t much better, and Cacka couldn’t make enough money to pay back the operating note from his bank. Then came 2001. “The price was high that year,” he says — more than ten dollars per sack. “It would’ve bailed me out.”

But a 2001 drought, combined with a subtle shift in national consciousness, created a full-blown crisis for farmers here. The Klamath Project diverts about one-third of the water in the Klamath, the third-largest river on the west coast of the U.S., onto farmers’ fields. The river was once also home to the third-largest salmon run in the region, and its waters sustain shortnose and Lost River sucker fish in nearby Upper Klamath Lake — all fish that stand at the heart of the Klamath, Yurok, and Hoopa Indian cultures. But fish runs had dwindled as water was sent to farms, and coho salmon and both species of suckers are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The 2001 drought set the competing water demands of agriculture and fish squarely in opposition. That April, to keep water in the river and Upper Klamath Lake for the fish, the federal government for the first time ever locked the head gate of the main irrigation canal closed, cutting off water for most of the basin’s fourteen hundred farms.

“Not getting water in 2001 basically ended my farming career,” says Cacka. He estimates he lost a quarter-million dollars. He sold much of his equipment to get out from under the payments on it, and turned to pesticide spraying to bring in a paycheck — only to see his insurance premiums quadruple after the September 11 attacks. Cacka sold out to a crop-dusting operation down the road and now runs his spray buggy for that company. Four generations of his family have farmed this piece of land, but today he is a sharecropper.

The aftershocks of that summer still reverberate. In 2002, the Bush administration brought relief when it delivered a full supply of irrigation water — but the resulting low flows in the river, and a disease outbreak caused by warmer water, killed as many as 270,000 salmon. Then last year, to protect the returning offspring of the 2002 survivors, the federal government severely restricted commercial salmon fishing on the West Coast, putting many fishermen out of work for the year and crippling the economy of coastal fishing towns. And so the Klamath Basin is caught between the crusade to put water to work creating human prosperity, and the more recent acknowledgment of water’s importance in holding together ecosystems. The past several decades have seen much debate about how to protect and restore the ecosystems that have suffered from single-minded development for human gain, but a new question is emerging in the conversation here: who pays when water is taken away from people to help the environment?

IN THE EARLY 1900S, THE U.S. government began a dam-building campaign to provide water to farmers and settle the West. The program was imbued with near-mythic visions of a better world. The Klamath Project was one of the first federal irrigation projects, and the farmers here today are an unlikely conglomeration of the descendants of Czech immigrants, World War II veterans, and other souls of varying provenance. Cacka’s grandfather was born here and fought to coax a farm out of the desert. He traveled to Czechoslovakia and married a woman named Anna but returned to the Klamath without her, and it took him several years to earn enough to pay her way across the Atlantic.

When Anna finally arrived, she later told Cacka, her first thought was that “if she woulda had the money to buy a ticket to head back, she woulda left. She said it was the most godforsaken, miserable, rotten-looking place she’d ever seen in her life: sagebrush, jackrabbits, sand dunes . . .” But Anna did not leave. After her husband died when their son — Cacka’s father — was two, she took over the farm and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen. “She went back once, to visit family,” Cacka says. “She never went back again after that. She had no desire to. This was home.”

That fierce spirit may go a long way toward explaining the emotional tension as farmers in the basin struggle to adjust to a different world. At least four times during the summer of 2001 they forcibly reopened the locked canal head gate with blowtorch, chainsaw, and crowbar before a detachment of federal agents regained control. On its face, the fight was little more than the classic, oft-caricatured, western water war. But the crisis raised far-reaching questions about how changing conceptions regarding water can unravel human communities.

Of all the national environmental-protection laws enacted over the past several decades, the Endangered Species Act has had the most profound implications for the byzantine hierarchy of western water rights, which gave precedence to those who first settled the land and first turned water out of streams for agriculture. Under that system, farmers’ claims to water had come to stand supreme. But the 1973 act raised the possibility that the need for water to protect endangered species could ultimately constitute a “super-right” that trumps all existing claims, drying up farmers’ fields in times of low water.

That possibility became a reality in the Klamath, and in October 2001, fourteen Klamath irrigation districts and several individual landowners pushed back. They sued the federal government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington DC, arguing that, in invoking the Endangered Species Act to close the irrigation-canal head gate that spring, the government had violated their constitutional rights. The U.S. Constitution bars the government from taking “private property . . . for public use, without just compensation,” and the Klamath farmers claimed that the government had committed a “taking” of their property rights to the water. They sought $1 billion in compensation.

“It’s Fifth Amendment,” says Cacka. “What we were saying was ‘Yes, the federal government can take the water for Endangered Species Act purposes, but they need to compensate the water users for what they take.'”

That claim rests on an assumption that underlies many of the resource conflicts in the West: that a common resource — in this case water — has become the private property of the people who use it. But has it?

A LEGAL SCHOLAR NAMED JOSEPH SAX is one of the leading champions of the idea that water is an inherently public resource. Sax literally wrote the book on water law: his Legal Control of Water Resources is the standard casebook for the field. Now seventy-one, Sax retired from his post at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school six years ago. When he appears in a courtroom to watch oral arguments — as he still habitually does — he is treated as a celebrity by lawyers from both sides of the case. He continues to write and lecture widely and, when he speaks publicly, frequently begins by noting that his own career reflects the broader shift in societal values. Last fall, during a speech at Boalt, Sax said, “We used to say to students, ‘You can divert water out of a stream for irrigation, for municipal use, for industrial use, and you can just keep taking it till there’s no more water left.’ In fact” — he paused to raise a finger for emphasis — “leaving water in the river was seen as wasteful.”

Behind that view of water, however, lay a fundamental acknowledgment that it is a special substance. Water law is grounded in the idea that water rights are inherently conditioned by limits intended to protect the public interest. While a person may have a right to water, it is a right to use that water, not to own the water itself.

That distinction is so important that several western states enshrined it in their constitutions. Yet the explicit recognition that, as Sax says, “water belongs to the state and can never be owned,” was, for many years, simply ignored. “Then,” Sax said, “1983 came along.” That year, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court of Alpine County, better known as the Mono Lake case. Since the 1940s, Los Angeles had diverted much of its municipal water supply from Mono Lake, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. As a result, the high-desert lake shrank dramatically, imperiling the resident and migratory birds that depend on it. By 1979, conditions were so bad that several environmental groups sued to stop LA’s water diversions, arguing that their impacts on Mono Lake violated what is known as the public trust.

The concept of the public trust is an ancient legal doctrine that holds that government has an obligation to steward certain resources for the public good. It, like the public-interest provisions in water law, had long languished in obscurity. But the Mono Lake case pulled the public trust squarely into modern law. In 1983, the California high court ruled that — despite the fact that Los Angeles had been using water from Mono Lake for four decades — its diversions were, indeed, subject to the public trust. A subsequent decision by the state’s water regulators required LA to significantly reduce its diversions to protect the lake. The ruling has been hailed as a landmark in water law, and helped bring to the fore the fundamental public-interest limitations that temper water rights.

Sax, meanwhile, had pressed further, arguing that public-trust considerations are, of necessity, constantly evolving. In a 1990 article for the University of Colorado Law Review, he laid out the shifting interplay between public-trust considerations and property rights that would ultimately catch people like Dave Cacka in a vise. Sax invoked the economist Kenneth Boulding’s concept of spaceship Earth: “Boulding said that we were moving from what he called a cowboy economy, in which achievement was measured by ‘throughput,’ growth in production and consumption, to a spaceship economy, where achievement would be measured by our ability to maintain the stock of resources we had and to put them to effective and sustaining use. . . . Traditional water strategies were classic examples of Boulding’s description of the cowboy economy.”

Anticipating the dynamic of the Klamath crisis, Sax warned that property-rights claims could “constrain opportunities for change,” and he went on to insist that, in demanding that water be used to satisfy environmental needs, “a state is only reasserting a right it has always had and never granted away.” Then he put the situation back into planetary perspective. “For most of our history, largely because of the illusion of abundance we created, we have operated as if the private element of the property system was the whole of it, and the public elements could be relegated to a back corner. . . . Now, the reality of the spaceship economy is upon us.”

Yet just three weeks after the government shut off the Klamath farmers’ water, a federal claims court judge delivered a ruling in an unrelated case that opened huge possibilities for their cause. In Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District v. U.S., farmers in a California irrigation district claimed a taking of their water property rights after the federal government limited their water deliveries to protect endangered fish in the early 1990s. On April 30, Judge John Wiese delivered the first of a pair of widely criticized rulings that would ultimately direct the federal government to pay $14 million, plus interest, to the Tulare water district. “The federal government is certainly free to preserve the fish,” wrote Wiese. “It must simply pay for the water it takes to do so.”

“OUR NOTION OF WHAT WATER IS GOOD FOR has changed,” Sax said last October when he spoke at Boalt Hall. “The real question beneath the legal questions, beneath these doctrinal theories, is how we transition from one agenda to another.”

He paused for an uncomfortably long time before he asked a question that was not entirely rhetorical: “Why is it that innocent people caught up in this social transition are asked to bear the cost, rather then the cost being borne by the public as a whole?”

A week earlier, I had met Sax and Brian Gray, who teaches water law at Hastings College of the Law, for lunch at a Thai restaurant in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood, not far from where Sax lives. Sax has argued in the past that, based on legal considerations alone, society owes nothing to such people, whom he has called “casualties of a changing world.” That afternoon, as he dispatched a bowl of rice noodles from his perch among the triangular pillows on the banquette, he allowed himself to range beyond the narrow legalistic view of his writings.

“The claim that’s made by the property-rights side — I mean the sort of rational property side, not the crazy people — is: ‘Look, if public values have changed, great. That’s the way of the world. But if public values have changed, why shouldn’t the public pay for the costs of these transitions? And if that means putting farmers out of business because you want to restore salmon runs, the costs of that ought to be generally borne by the public that benefits from these changes.’ That’s the real issue.” Gray pointed out that “you’re basically asking people to retire from a business that the government has, to a large extent, encouraged them to go into.” And with the empty noodle bowl before him, Sax said, “I think it would be healthy if we had more controversy about fairness and less about property rights.”

People truly hurt by the shifting agenda, he suggested, could — in the broader arena of public policy rather than the courts — steer the terms of the debate onto friendlier ground by arguing, “‘Look, you’re just really beating the hell out of us. We had no reason to prepare for this. We couldn’t have prepared for it.’ Your starting point ought to be, everybody’s got to take a little piece of this. The property debate is an either/or thing. No judge could say, ‘Well, you don’t have a property right, but I’m gonna award you half of what your claim is anyway, because I feel sorry for you.'”

As it turns out, federal claims court judge Francis Allegra acknowledged that very constraint when he delivered his initial ruling in the Klamath farmers’ case on August 31, 2005. Allegra made clear that he understood what was at stake, noting that the farmers “have long invested effort and expense in developing their lands based upon the expectation that the waters of the Klamath Basin would continue to flow, uninterrupted, for irrigation.” Nonetheless, he denied the farmers’ takings claim, delivering a sometimes tartly worded excoriation of their logic — and opining that Judge Wiese’s decision in the earlier Tulare case might have actually “awarded just compensation for the taking of interests that may well not exist.” In March 2007, Allegra dismissed the Klamath case.

IN THE KLAMATH BASIN, MIKE BYRNE seems to play the foil to Dave Cacka’s starched-straight Czech persona. A gruff fifty-six year old who roars around in a Dodge pickup that appears to have squeaked through an ambush, Byrne looks like he came into the world wearing a pair of irrigating boots, and he has a hard time sitting still. As we talked in his living room, he occasionally fished a cell phone out of his shirt pocket to answer calls.

Byrne heads the ad hoc committee that has shepherded the takings lawsuit since 2001, and he has a reputation among his fellow committee members for being both laconic and a little cranky. That reputation is not undeserved, and, in the wake of Allegra’s ruling, he had plenty to be cranky about. “Everybody thought they’d been wronged, and [attorney Roger Marzulla] came out here and told ’em he was gonna go back and clean everybody’s clock,” Byrne said with a laugh. Then he fidgeted with the knee of his jeans. “But the judge didn’t buy our arguments too good, it’s pretty obvious.”

While many people in the Klamath fall back on god-and-apple-pie recitations about the righteousness of their fight, Mike Byrne can talk his way through the rhetoric to put the Klamath fight in the broader landscape. “We got along for nine decades without any problems,” he said, almost wistfully. Now, “people are saying, ‘No way, it ain’t gonna happen that way no more.'”

The defense-of-private-property formulation that is so popular here is appealing for its simplicity and punch, but it is a very blunt instrument for dealing with a transition whose costs could be finessed in subtler ways. As a remedy for the fundamental problem the farmers are facing, a takings claim seems like an idea that could only have been hatched on some distant moon. Even if they were to prevail in their planned appeal of Allegra’s final decision, Byrne said, “They give us cash. They don’t give us water.” And while a round of Treasury checks in farmers’ mailboxes is not an unwelcome prospect here, it would not realign the new calculus in which water’s ecological importance figures large.

Nor would it put farmers at the top of the water-rights hierarchy again, and that puts a lot more at stake. Dave Cacka’s son Joshua would have been the fifth generation in the family to farm, but after 2001 he left the Klamath Basin. “He didn’t want to take the risk,” Cacka says, “and I didn’t want him to take the risk.” Today, Joshua works in Boise, Idaho. “He’s a certified plastic welder,” says Cacka, “welds exotic plastics and Teflons and stuff.”

I asked Cacka whether the real issue is not how much farmers should get in compensation, but “what do we do about the people who are getting squeezed out? Even if it’s not giving them money for the water, can we . . .”

Cacka finished the question for me: “. . . retrain them to be greeters at Wal-Mart?” Then the overhead heater in his father’s garage kicked on and helped fill an uncomfortable silence.

Over and over, farmers in the Klamath have said they are facing foes — to whom they always referred in sinisterly vague terms — determined to “end irrigated agriculture.” Yet it is not at all clear that the farmers are, in fact, facing imminent demise. The drought of 2001 was a brutal awakening to the world run by new rules. Over the long run, the Klamath farmers are not facing a crisis of existence as much as a sort of adaptation, a tempering of what Brian Gray has called the “ancien régime” with contemporary environmental values.

By the spring of 2007, after their losses in court, many Klamath farmers were in a more conciliatory mood. Despite his bombast, Mike Byrne seemed to sense the opportunities that lie in everyone shouldering a little piece of the solution — and the hurt, as well. “Nature’s nature, and when it’s wet, you got a lot. And when it’s dry, you gotta suck it up everywhere,” he said. “There’s gonna be give and it’s gonna be painful. But to say, ‘This year, you can’t fish’ and ‘That year, you can’t farm’ . . . This rotating victims is a bunch of baloney.” Recently, during a series of closed-door negotiations over the future of several hydroelectric dams on the river, Klamath farmers began discussions with Indian tribes, Pacific Coast fishermen, and environmental groups about how to more equitably share the burden of future water shortages.

Matt Jenkins is a freelance writer and contributing editor to High Country News. He writes from Berkeley, California.


  1. In May of 2006, I gave an extensively annotated paper at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I have reproduced its abstract below.

    If the abstract interests you, tell me your mailing address. I will snail mail a copy to you to you, at no charge.

    Willis A. (Bill) Frambach

    When the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause
    Intersects the Public Trust Doctrine,
    Inconsistent Theories of Social Justice Collide

    Willis A. Frambach, J.D.

    Takings Conference May 12 & 13, 2006 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, hosted by Perry Shapiro, Ph.D., Professor of Economics


    One view is that all human rights flow from the grace of the sovereign in the place where questions of rights arise. Another view is that human rights, such as those expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the writings of numerous respected authors are generally accepted expressions of human rights that do not flow from the grace of any earthly sovereign, although a sovereign may acknowledge that such rights exist and may enforce them. Our founding fathers risked being hanged for treason when they declared boldly to George III that no sovereign is empowered to extinguish mankind’s inalienable rights. Is that moral principle, which they imperiled their lives to assert, true today?

    The public trust doctrine, as a means of providing, protecting, and assuring certain human rights that do not flow from the grace of any earthly sovereign, limits the power of the sovereign to convey, or to have conveyed earlier, as private property some types of property, and it limits landowners’ uses of some properties, both irrespective of what documents of title say, imply, or omit.

    Real property law in the U.K., the U.S.A., and the other former British colonies is based upon the concept that initially the king owned all of the land, outright. If that idea is valid, it follows that deeds, patents, or grants from the king or from a successor sovereign convey to private owners a “bundle of rights” to the property that includes the right to use it as the owner chooses, subject only to the current sovereign’s police powers, notwithstanding contentions about the public trust doctrine.

    This author poses, tests, and invites tests of the hypothesis that when the human rights that underlie the public trust doctrine and “property rights,” based upon medieval English kings’ assertions and force of arms, conflict, “property rights” must recede.

  2. I can relate to this article from a different viewpoint. We tried to be organic Greenhouse growers (tomatoes and cucumbers) but the costs related to being certified and the lack of market just killed us. I can see things from both the environmentalist and farmers viewpoint. Ouch!

  3. Thanks to Matt Jenkins for a good article, but I think there are a few pertinent points left out. First of all, the area being farmed on the Klamath is wildlife reserve, designated wilderness and public land…owned by the American public, not the farmers… even though they act as if they own the land.

    The potatoes being grown there are the best “environmentally protected” potatoes in the world, which is more than can be said for the drained and dried-out and cracked wetlands, the fish, the wild fowl and the eagles (bears are already gone). The wetlands are the feeding stations on the main Pacific Flyway for 1 million water fowl (formerly 6-7 million). The salmon is a keystone species that brings nutrients from the sea hundreds of miles inland. The nutrients are absorbed by wildlife and trees and salmon fry that will return as adults (if allowed to be spawned in the first place or if they are not sucked into the dam turbines when trying to get back to the sea).

    During the 2001 drought, the reserve farmers received 68% of their normal water entitlement and the non-reserve farmers received 54%. Wells were dug at public expense to accommodate their irrigation expectations and they received financial compensation, in some cases more than would have been earned by farming in the first place.

    The 45 electrically powered pumping stations provide irrigation water through hundreds of miles of canals and irrigation ditches, again, not paid for by the farmers. During the 2002 drought, the farmers broke down the dam gates and flooded fields for irrigation water. They flooded out highways and disrupted traffic…meanwhile, the Klamath river was dewatered below minimum flow-levels and the largest fish-kill in history occurred when the salmon run came in out of the cold Pacific waters and found themselves in warm, de-oxegenated, shallow river water that left many high and dry and bred disease like wildfire.

    The fishermen (about 3000 main income earners) and the Native American tribes who have legal rights to the salmon haven’t received a penny in compensation.

    In 2002, the Wall St Journal found the US Geological Survey’s economic conclusions on the Klamath Basin showing that farming on the Klamath brings in about $100million/year. Recreation brings in $800million. If the area was restored as a national refuge for fishing, hunting and recreational activities, it would generate $3billion per year. It would take $5billion to buy out the farmers’ leases and restore the area.

    About half of the farmers in the area were willing to be bought out because it is difficult to farm in an area that is experiencing frequent droughts. A few objectors got the proposal thrown out.

    The Bureau of Reclamation who devised the irrigation plan to make the “desert bloom” (while dewatering the wetlands, lakes and rivers), has a vested interest in making the farming initiative work. Also, herbicide, fertiliser companies,pesticide companies and the Korean companies that receive a great portion of Klamath potatoes for chipping.

    At one time the fishing industry on the Klamath was worth billions. The result of the 2002 drought was that the farmers got what they wanted and “minority group” when they are “soveriegn nations” with legal rights that happen to be living inside the United States.
    During the last 150 years, since the re-plumbing of the Klamath Basin, the area has been sinkoing into enviornomental tail-spin, and yet, 5 more hydro-electricity dams have been proposed on the river. As it is, the salmon can’t negotiate above the 180mile lower reaches of the Klamath. For 57 miles, six dams stop their attempts to travel the 300 miles of the upper reaches to their breeding ground.

    PacifiCorp is the company that ownes the 6 dams on the Klamath. (The mother company is Scottish Power). Furthermore, it is misleading to think that the local economy will be losing a source of sustainable food and farming if the farms are removed and the Klamath is restored to its national wilderness status.

    The dams are up for renewed lisences at present and legal opinion is that at least two of them should be removed. That is a less expensive measure than retrofitting salmon ladders and other measures to ensure the water quality, water levels and safety of the river as a fish run. Furthermore, the reservoirs have toxic algae growing in them. In places it has been found in concentrations 4000x the amount allowed in World Health Organisation guidelines. This is a direct result of dams, farming and irrigating the Klamath Basin. Children play, swim and water ski on those waters.

    Finally, I would like to add that in most countries when the farming commumnities are hit with droughts, they understand that they cannot expect a full complement of water to grow crops. Farmers usually reduce the size of their crops to reflect the amount of water available.

    I so sympathise with anyone that is likely to lose their way of earning a living, but if it is clearly unsusainable for an area to support that practice, then people can fall back on their ingeniuety and do something else. Any one of us could lose our occupations and we would have to do something else. The Klamath farmers can thank their luck stars that they are not being displaced by a dam in a small Chinese farming community and likely to end up scavanging in the slum-sprawl of a mega-city with no sanatation or drinking water facilities.

    Clearly, the western mindset of being able to have expectations fully met is unrealistic in a water stressed area such as the Klamath. Water use and land use need to be looked at carefully to see where the wisdom of the situation lies.

    During water stressed years such as 2001 and 2002, the river is only allowed “minimum flow levels” as a benchmark. Even those meagre amounts were not enforced. Perhaps the farmers could also have “minimum irrigation levels” that allow them the same odds of survival as the environment is expected to operate on.

    We must remember that we are guests on the earth. Without the environment, we cease to exist. Such flagrant disrespect of our provider is like playing Russian roulette.

    I have heard Farmers in the Klamath say, “I’m not going to lose my farm for a suckerfish! It’s just a fish…one species that might go extinct… and you expect the farmers to lose income…” Similarly, one could say, “It’s just a potato and the farmers expect us to lose our eco-systems and the web of life that we all depend on for survival…”

  4. PS. Upon re-reading what I submitted, I noticed the mis-spellings. Some of it is the fault of a glitch on my keyboard and some as a result of my fingers hitting the wrong keys. Apologies. At one point I was mentioning the Native American Tribes as “soveriegn nations”…not the farmers. Please look at in context of the correction. It should not detract from the content of the piece. I have studied the Klamlath in depth in terms of sustainable development, water use and land use. Thanks, Beth D.

  5. Beth,

    You rightly point out that there is a gigantic cloud of issues at play in the Klamath Basin — many of which are arcane in the extreme, and none of which are unimportant. But I think that the question of how we should address the social costs of these community transitions is not discussed as often, or forthrightly, as it should be, particularly in the Klamath. That was the question I wanted to bring forward with my story, and doing that meant I had to cut through the myriad other — admittedly entangled — issues there.

    I’ll do that again now, and start by zeroing in on the notion that dislocated people should simply “fall back on their ingenuity and do something else.” That clearly is one approach. But as Brian Gray points out in the story, there are questions of equity with such an approach, because the farmers were originally encouraged by the government — and, by extension, the American people — to take up farming in the Klamath project, only to have the rules change on them. (That argument does nothing, I think, to diminish the fact that there are even more glaring equity issues related to how Indians and salmon fishermen have fared through all of this, too.)

    There are a number of precedents, alternatives and models of — for lack of a better phrase — “public support” for people displaced by economic and environmental transitions. The one most frequently discussed is job retraining, a tactic that has been used with U.S. autoworkers who have been laid off, to varying degrees of success. That idea was more recently adopted for loggers and other timber-industry workers in the Pacific Northwest, who lost their jobs as logging levels on public land were reduced under the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan. I’ll write a little bit more extensively about this in coming days.

    There is, of course, the idea of temporarily stanching the bleeding with disaster relief payments. By contrast, buyouts — as you note — offer a lasting solution, if not always a popular one. In the wake of the 2001 crisis, there was a serious effort to put together a legislative package to offer money to Klamath farmers who wanted to sell out and basically retire from farming. A number of farmers expressed interest in such a package, although I’m not sure the number ever approached half of all the farmers in the basin (to the best of my knowledge, it was less than 100 of the roughly 1,000 farmers there). That effort did not get far, but when I reported this story earlier this year, my sense was that — largely due to the string of legal defeats the farmers have suffered in recent years — many of them are in a more conciliatory mood than in the past. So perhaps voluntary buyouts may be an idea whose time is finally ripe in the Klamath.

    Buyouts, it seems, are a definitive concession that certain human activities have gone beyond the point that the land (and water) can handle. They are also amazingly contentious. After decades of full-throttle groundwater pumping in Nebraska, for instance, the state legislature in 2004 approved a measure to buy out farmers and return pumping to sustainable levels. Now, the state is trying to sort out the prickly details of how to buy out farmers who may be forced to sell against their will. And the large amounts of money required to buy out farms seems to take us back to the more philosophical question of what our responsibility as, say, individual taxpayers is to the “casualties of a changing world.”


  6. One thing your article did not mention about the Mono Lake case was that the Mono Lake Committee successfully lobbied for replacement water supplies for Los Angeles. $36 million of state and $10 million of federal funding created “new” supplies of water through water conservation and reclamation.

    The Mono Lake Committee partnered with Community Based Organizations to distribute ultra-low-flow toilets in the city. That program was so successful that it was discontinued after the residential market was saturated. Now water conservation is part of LA’s infrastructure! And LA is actually gaining more water from these programs than they used to get from the Mono Basin–LA actually gained water out of saving Mono Lake!

    Reading your article, one would think this approach is cutting edge, yet it happened 15 years ago.

    It becomes more complex with numerous agricultural water users. Walker Lake, NV, 60 miles NE of Mono Lake, is drying up, and about to lose its native Lahontan Cutthroat Trout fishery. Upstream agricultural diversions are again the cause. Senator Harry Reid got Farm Bill funding to buy out water rights from willing sellers, but in a basin that is overallocated, will it be enough? And will it be in time? As the EIS is developed, the lake continues to recede, and the fishery is crashing.

    The other interesting question is the Westlands Water District in California. Land that many people agree is too salty to irrigate (causing horrible drainage problems) has contracts for water, and the Feds are on the hook to solve the drainage problem. The best solution would be to stop irrigating. But this water is subsidized, so it makes it hard to feel sorry for corporate agribusiness and want to help them out more when they are already profiting off a bad situation.

    Sax’s point about fairness comes in here–the facts of each case are important in deciding what is fair when the legal rules might otherwise ignore who bears the costs of a transition to a sustainable society.

  7. Matt,

    I apologise for coming across as unconcerned about the farmers’ plight. I certainly don’t want to throw them to the winds of fortune and I would love to see an equitable solution to this problem for all stakeholders in the Klamath. I do feel that the starting point has got to be a mixture of conservation and sensible use of a diminished resource, considered allocation with the health of the entire basin at the heart of planning and a good-hearted sharing of this fragile resource. This is a great opportunity to bring the people of the Klamath together as a inter-dependent community.

    There has got to be a deeper understanding within the farming community of the real impacts of agricultural pollutants on the local water quality and the eco-system degradation delivered by large dams that supply their irrigation water. Education in sustainable agricultural practices is needed as is creation of new employment opportunities. The farming community is being asked to make a transiton and will need wider community support and encouragement achieve better water and land use practices. Old habits, even glaringly unsustainable ones, are hard to break because, until now, they have guaranteed production. With loans to pay off, changing anything could be a risky proposition.

    Water, as with all of our natural resources, is becoming more scarce and stressed as time goes on. Perhaps the main question should be how we are going to use our resources. Farming is necessary, but perhaps there are limits to growth in terms of how much farming the basin can support. Is growing water thirsty alfalfa to feed to cows a sensible use of water in a water-stressed basin, particularly during drought years?
    Perhaps subsidies could be given to farmers during drier years so that they could plant less or import cattle feed to allow the natural environment to continue providing eco-system services to the area to the best of its ability.

    I do think that the farmers should be financially supported and rewarded in any efforts to create sustainable practices and to conserve water.

    As you rightly pointed out, Matt, the farmers were encouraged post WWII to settle in the basin. However, things have changed considerably since then and our understanding of human impact upon our biosphere has advanced. The BuRec plan was born of Victorian values of “conquering nature”. That does not mean that we should continue to follow that plan just because it was put in place before the consequences became apparent.

    The irrigation project cannot be blamed for all water changes in the basin. Water is also susceptible to climatic influences and from clearcutting of forests, etc. But, the project has definetly changed the physical interactions and ecological dynamics of an area that functioned admirably until we began meddling with it 150 years ago.

    We are just realising the impact of putting water everywhere it does not belong. The farmers’ livlihoods depend on this misallocation of resources, a practice that is not sustainable, unless we are talking about sustaining yield from fields only. Furthermore, the practice of pumping water through miles and miles of canals and channels to irriate fields may not have a future in the greater picture of peaking fossil fuels. The hydro-electricity used to pump water around the irrigation project might be demanded elsewhere in the next decade or so.

    You are quite right to point out that there are limits to water use and abstraction from groundwater reservoirs. Untrammeled water use for any reason, merely because it creates jobs or income, needs to be looked at again.

    Funnily enough, I posed the question of water use in the Klamath Basin to a group of Geography degree students just the other day. They seemed to think that the main problems were misinformation and lack of information within the local population. They also suggested that local steering groups consisting of all stakeholders would make better headway than central government decisions.

    Again, localisation seems to be a perceived way forward.

  8. Greg –

    I think your comments about the Mono Lake decision raise an important point that merits reiteration here. I’ll start by backtracking just a bit, and saying that in the broader public mind, public trust and takings debates are often seen as two distinct issues. But both, in fact, center on the same question: Are things like water and forests are a private, commodified resource, or are they a public resource whose true worth is not susceptible to the standard economic valuations?

    To press forward: Where that question has been debated, not in the abstract but with regard to real-world resource conflicts — in public-trust cases such as the fight over Mono Lake, and in takings cases such as that in the Klamath — the story has turned out to be as much one of true compromise as of the triumph of any one legal doctrine over another.

    The restoration of Mono Lake is the perfect example: The Mono Lake Committee was incredibly active in helping Los Angeles find replacement water for the supplies that it lost with the court ruling. In a 2001 law-review article that they wrote nearly 20 years after the decision, Leigh Jewell and Tony Arnold argued that the Mono Lake Committee’s efforts to help Los Angeles “turned what could have been a doctrinally astonishing but practically ineffective judicial decision into effective protection for the Mono Lake ecosystem.”

    They also note that the Mono Lake decision may not have stood for long without the Committee’s pragmatic efforts to help out its erstwhile adversary. Simply forcing Los Angeles to reduce its take of Mono water without providing alternative supplies “might,” they wrote, “have generated political forces and public pressures that would have weakened the public trust doctrine altogether. It is not inconceivable that a large, thirsty Southern California electorate could have used the initiative process to pass a constitutional amendment limiting the public trust doctrine’s applicability to water rights.”

    All of this, I think, points up the fact that lofty legal theory rarely carries the day or offers the most useful solutions to resource problems — which, again, seems to be one of the most profound lessons from the Klamath crisis and its aftershocks.

    (For die-hard readers, Jewell and Arnold’s paper provides a detailed look at the compromises and extra-judicial wrangling the followed the Mono Lake decision. The paper appeared as “Litigation’s Bounded Effectiveness and the Real Public Trust Doctrine: The Aftermath of the Mono Lake Case” in West-Northwest, the Hastings law school’s environmental law and policy journal, in Fall 2001.)

    — Matt

  9. I am only a concerned citizen, and not an expert. As such, I cannot rise to the level of this conversation. Neither am I an activist, in any sense. In fact, I’ll admit here in print that I’m the despairing, denying, apathetic cause-of-the-problem. However, I felt a subtle anger reading the original article, and after examining it, I felt compelled to offer one layman’s perspective.

    As a regular person, I have a harsh and unpopular word for these displaced farmers, with whom everyone is so smarmily sympathetic. I’m sure I fail to comprehend the complexities of your plight, and I acknowledge that I have never had to face losing a way of life. But I do know that being adversely affected by something and being its victim are not the same. Suddenly you are poor and have no direction. Welcome to my world. I’m right there with you. It’s frightening, isn’t it? I was sold a lie, too (and it wasn’t 90 yeas ago in a different generation), in the form of a federal student loan (for which I’m still, at 41, deep in debt). I thought it was the right thing to do (the government said so, and so did my parents), and all I got in the end was a couple of degrees, an overpriced apartment in the city, and servitude to a shitty $10.00/hr job that I hate. I was 18, and I didn’t know any better, and I got the life you’re afraid of being relegated to. So stop crying. It’s up to us to change our own lives and circumstances now.

    When it comes to our use and abuse of natural resources, particularly in developed countries like ours human beings are the actORs in the saga. The only victims are the land, the sea, the river, and the creatures who must live or die at our mercy. Farmers, fishers, government, and citizens are all responsible to change our *thinking*, to stop believing we have a moral imperative to farm deserts, build cities in floodplains, and yes, live our daily lives in blissful ignorance of where our water, our food, and our energy come from.

    We have believed ourselves the masters of the world, and we have made it so, but this belief is killing both it and us. Endless bickering over who is most vicitmized and who is most entitled serves us nothing. We ALL must take our losses and be willing to CHANGE together. We must cease to be masters and begin to be fellow-denizens. We must contemplate, however strange and difficult it may seem, the possibility that the owner of the water is the one who lives in it. We did not know that in the past, when we thought our might made us right. We can think about it now. And it is direly important that we do. This is our new imperative.

    Thank you for reading this.

  10. Go, Camilla!
    “The western mindset of being able to have expectations fully met is unrealistic….” is one of the keys to finding a solution to the argument. The earth that we live on is constantly changing and adaptation is fundemental to survival.
    We are guests here and no more and we should cherish and care for this planet as she alone sustains us.

  11. Leading this article with a personal story about the plight of a farmer cheapens the discussion. It’s like talking about whether we should close the Abilene plant to build nuclear warheads through the eyes of a factory worker. The bigger picture is what counts: irrigation is not viable in an area suffering increasing drought, declining fish migrations, and sensitive migratory bird habitat. Tell the farmers to relocate, and don’t make it a tearjerker story.

  12. Relevant news from the Klamath today:

    Levee blasts signal a truce in water wars

    Klamath – Four half-mile sections are pulverized in an effort to restore fish habitat

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007
    The Oregonian

    “The flooding of 2,500 acres of the Williamson River delta is designed to aid the recovery of two species of fish found only in the Klamath Basin. In 1988, the Lost River and shortnose suckers were declared endangered under federal law. Ever since, sparring interests have been trying to put together an acceptable recovery plan.”

    “This is a river that’s seen a lot of controversy,” Staunton said. “We hope that with projects like this we can continue to share the water and improve the situation for everyone.”

    Hope this link works:


    Orion Grassroots Network

  13. Matt, thanks for the great article. You acknowledge in the discussion that communities in the Southeast are confronting these questions about water. I am opposing a coal plant in NC that will not only emit over 6 million tons of CO2 annually but also evaporate 21 million gallons of water every day. And two new nuclear plants — even bigger water hogs — are planned just downstream. We are in an “exceptional” drought. And 81% of the water withdrawn from NC’s reservoirs, lakes, and rivers every day goes to produce electricity.

    We could make our electricity without using so much water (and without destroying the climate), but here the utilities are so powerful that the alternatives can’t get off the ground. Do you know any journalists who are working on the water/energy connection? I badly want to draw attention to this important story.
    Thanks so much.

    Beth Henry
    Charlotte, NC

  14. Yesterday, I had a long drive back down from the Klamath Basin, where I’d watched the levees get blown sky-high. The drive gave me 350-some-odd miles to think about this a little more, and I realized that I think it’s unrealistic to simply wish away irrigated agriculture from those watersheds where it harms fish and birds.

    When I got home, I cooked up a bunch of my standard near-winter fare — green chile stew, with a little lamb. I’ve been in a running-tallies-in-my-head sort of mood lately, and as I made the stew, I kept track of where the ingredients most likely came from, and which fish they’re affecting. The pinto beans came from western Colorado, from an irrigation project that has reduced river flows for Colorado River cutthroat trout. The roma tomatoes, which were organic, came from either Baja California or Sonora, Mexico — which means they were grown with water that otherwise would have gone to the Sea of Cortez to nurture fish like the totoaba, a relative of the sea bass, and a porpoise called the vaquita. Green chiles from New Mexico use water for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. The water I boiled the beans in is water that otherwise would have flowed into the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta to support a fish called the Delta smelt, whose populations have been devastated. I drank a beer while I was making the stew, and the hops almost certainly came from the Yakima Valley, in Washington, which is prime salmon-spawning habitat. (I was a little incredulous to realize that the lamb may, in fact, be the most endangered-fish-neutral ingredient in the entire meal.)

    On its face, green chile stew does not seem like a thing that would imperil fish. Yet my meal last night affected fish in at least five separate watersheds — each of which is, in its own way, facing problems similar to the Klamath. This isn’t just a western thing, either: If you live in New York, your roma tomatoes and the hops in your beer, and much of your lettuce and carrots and rice (and your potato chips) have been grown by farmers in irrigation projects.

    So here’s my point: Even if you don’t like folks like Dave Cacka and Mike Byrne, and even if you don’t eat food that the Klamath farmers themselves have grown, we all are pretty intimately connected, in one way or another, to the same kinds of problems that are bedeviling the Klamath Basin. We, as a human species, are too dependent on irrigated agriculture — and a lot of other not-environmentally-benign practices like logging and fishing — to let go.

    So as for this question of what we do about the human and community costs incurred as we try to reduce the environmental impacts of practices like irrigation in the Klamath Basin? I think we all already have a piece of this sitting in our bellies.

    — Matt

  15. Matt,

    I thought the article was petty balanced. I will start by saying I have a bias. I live and work in the Klamath Basin.

    What’s discouraging to me are the reader comments. Beth for example, has clearly read a lot and indicated she has studied the Klamath issues. Unfortunately for anyone who has taken the time to learn the facts they would see immediately that Beth has been studying works of fiction.

    Most of her facts are wrong or contain only half the truth. The issues in Klamath are complicated and don’t lend themselves well to sound-bites. I don’t have the time or energy to go through everything she got wrong (part of our problem in the Klamath is we don’t spend enough time doing that).

    I would like to know from Beth how many times she has actually been to the Klamath Project? And who is the farmer that she has quoted?

    Farmers in the Klamath Basin take great pride in the over 430 species of wildlife that call the area home. They provide food and habitat for many species. Many of these species were devastated when water was shut off in 2001 to benefit 3 species of fish. The irrigation infrastructure has developed its own ecosystem. Pond turtles died by the thousands, the migratory waterfall were severely disrupted, if not devastated. The action to shut-off water to 180,000 acres was for the benefit of 3 species and to the detriment of others. Our wildlife refuge neighbors suffered as well. They depend on farmers and the irrigation project to deliver water (99% of the farming occurs on private land, not on the refuge).

    Klamath farmers could just go away… relocate. But, why be hypocritical? The California Bay area used to be home to tremendous wildlife (bears) and home to Native people. It’s outrageous that man has invaded this area and destroyed the resources there. Relocate San Francisco and quit being so sympathetic!

    We can have farmers working with and in the ecosystem and providing food and habitat for wildlife, or we can have destination resorts and Wal-Marts…your choice.

    The next time any of you eat a potato chip, drink organic milk, have a stick of Wrigley’s chewing gum, brush your teeth with mint toothpaste, eat a French fry, have a steak, eat bread made from organic wheat, open a can of Campbell’s soup, or put a little horseradish on your prime rib….. think about Klamath. Although, I suppose we could get most of these things from China if you prefer.

  16. One important distinction between, say, the student-loan example and that of the Klamath is that water in farming communities is a resource upon which the entire local economy is founded. When laws change and reach straight to that common economic base, they force a particularly profound sort of transformation and call into question the fate of entire communities — which, in rural areas, don’t often have a diversified economic base.

    So we return to the two bleak options that bracket all of this: Either the government is forced to pay out huge amounts of money to ransom back the resource, or it commandeers the resource by sheer regulatory fiat. But between those two poles lies a whole spectrum of equitable possibilities — one of which seems to start with the government (and the public) acknowledging that, in changing the rules, we have a responsibility to provide some sort of alternative.

    As it happens, the government took exactly that tack in logging communities in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s — and the episode is often cited as a model of how the public can help shepherd communities through environmental and economic transitions. The thumbnail-sketch version of the story is this: In 1993, after a series of court injunctions shut down federal-lands logging in the Pacific Northwest to protect the spotted owl, President Clinton created the Northwest Forest Plan. The plan allowed logging to continue, but greatly reduced levels. The Clinton administration was quite explicit that, in protecting the forests and trying to create a sustainable timber industry, it was also determined to “support the region’s people and communities during the transition.”

    The federal government estimated that 11,000 to 16,000 workers could lose their jobs because of timber reductions. In response, it created a $1.2 billion economic-adjustment program to provide job retraining for “dislocated” loggers and mill workers, create a “Jobs in the Woods” program that put loggers to work restoring forests and streams, and provide loans and loan guarantees to help local businesses diversify. The government also created a new system of federal payments to rural counties to replace the share of receipts that they lost with reduced logging levels.

    There has not been much empirical evaluation of how well the program worked, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the promise of the Northwest Forest Plan’s economic-adjustment programs may have been oversold as a model for communities facing similar straitened circumstances. To be fair, presidential and congressional support for the program has, essentially, fizzled out. The retraining and Jobs in the Woods programs have quietly disappeared, and last year, Congress voted to not renew the timber-payment-substitution program. As a result — to give just one example — Jackson County, Oregon, was forced to shutter its public libraries for several months. (Now, candidates hoping to unseat U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, R-Ore., have seized on the timber-payments program as a major issues in next year’s election).

    The mixed successes of such adjustment programs — and particularly, the fact that they’re subject to the caprices of Congress and presidential administrations — suggests that communities may fare better by trying to stay ahead of the curve and adapt to changing circumstances, rather than waiting for a crisis to happen and then clamoring for public help.

    Stay tuned for more.

    — Matt

  17. My name is
    Clark Whitney and I live in Soldotna, Alaska, a small town on the Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska. I am writing this as an attempt to alert anyone who is interested to a impending ecological disaster in Southwest Alaska – specifically the Bristol Bay watershed.

    At this time, a LLC known as Dynasty Corporation is attempting to secure permits for a hard rock gold, copper, molybdenum mine at the headwaters af two streams which are essential to the survival of the majority of the Bristol Bay salmon – a run that averages from 3.5 – 60 million sockeye salmon each year. The proposed strip mine would be located at the headwaters of both Telarik Creek and the Koktuli River. The proposal is to blast the 3 square miles necessary to get at the minerals and to build a tailings pond three miles long and one mile wide with earthen dikes as high as Hoover Dam in an incredibly earthquake-prone area.

    The substrate in this region is alluvial and the ore-bearing rock is composed largely of sulfides, which when exposed to water becomes sulfuric acid and leaches the heavy metals out of the rock.

    At this time, the permitting process in Alaska is very suspect with the head of DNR a former gold min manager and the head of DEC a former lawyer for TEK Cominco mining co.

    I would like to get out the word of this potential disaster and plead for any help we can get. For additional information, please contact renewableresourcescoalitionl.com

    Thank you for any help you may give.

    Clark Whitney

  18. Thanks, Matt, for a great article and follow-up discussion.
    As I write this, we in the Bay Area are seeing the damage inflicted by last week’s oil spill. It seems like our entire economy rests on destructive “cowboy” practices, whether it is shipping oil into fragile waterways, or irrigating arid, marginal landscapes. Part of our problem in California is that we went and built houses on some of the best land: I can remember when there were still apricot orchards in East San Jose.
    We’ve have a few local triumphs in the push for more sustainable water use: this summer, Sonoma County water customers were able to reduce water use so that less water would be drawn from Lake Mendocino, thus allowing sufficient flows in the Russian River for the salmon. It seemed to work pretty well with a minimum of pain and suffering all around. But now the crab fishermen are probably going to delay the start of their season due to the oil spill. A step forward, two steps back– and will the oil tanker’s insurance company pay for the fishermen’s losses, as well as the cleanup? Could we really manage to allocate the public costs of oil use, irrigation, and hydroelectric power in an equitable manner, including fish, birds, and even crustaceans as part of the public? I don’t see how we can avoid making the effort, as hard as it seems. My hope is that the days of blindly asserting the “right” of businesses to be profitable, no matter what the cost to the public, are becoming part of the past.

  19. One of the great (and seriously under-reported) surprises of the past couple decades is the story of natural resource-based communities that have actually worked to make themselves friendlier to endangered species. Often, however, such changes have only come after considerable blunt-force trauma to parties on all sides of the equation.

    One such place is the water district that serves farms around the towns of Willows, Maxwell and Williams, about 180 miles south of the Klamath, in California’s Sacramento River valley. There, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District pumps water out of the Sacramento River, which is also spawning habitat for winter-run chinook salmon — which were placed on the endangered species act in 1990.

    Despite considerable pressure from the federal government, the district refused to separate its powerful turbine pumps from the river with a “fish screen,” which would have prevented salmon from getting sucked into — and essentially pureed by — the pumps. In 1991, the federal government obtained a court injunction to protect the salmon — and shut down the district.

    That set in motion a series of fairly significant and rapid changes. “Farmers in the district realized that such an immense crisis should not have happened,” says Van Tenney, who was hired to run the district four years later, “and they felt that there needed to be new leadership.” The district’s farmers recalled three of its five board members, and voted off the remaining two in the next election. Then the management of the newly reconstituted district reached a legal settlement with the federal government and agreed to finally install the fish screen.

    It was a Disney ending … sort of. It also proved that people are a lot gladder to throw their money into a game when they know they can leverage it by a factor of almost seven: Glenn-Colusa’s farmers chipped in about $12 million toward the cost of the fish screen, while the state and (to a far larger extent) federal governments picked up the rest of the $80 million tab.

    This is the point at which I imagine that fiscal conservatives and social liberals are screaming in unison — and the point at which it might be good to raise the bigger question of how, as Catherine asked, we can allocate the public costs of resource-dependence in an equitable manner. That, I think, is the real question that hangs unresolved in the Klamath.

    For now, I’ll rein up short and argue that the Glenn-Colusa affair hints that tweaks and tune-ups of century-old systems can go a long way toward helping traditional, resource-extraction economies continue, with greatly reduced environmental impacts and in a far more sustainable manner. That tactic of fiddling with the plumbing, so to speak, has proven to be a model for other communities that are trying to be even more proactive in endangered-species protection efforts — and seem inclined to shoulder even greater portions of the costs.

    — Matt

  20. Thanks to Matt Jenkins for a look into the legal and social intricacies of social change and natural resource management. Unfortunately, however, the battle in the Klamath is often oversimplified as a fish versus farmer controversy. For the salmon and the salmon dependent tribes of the Klamath River, the controversy could be more accurately described as fish versus the power company. Removal of dams on the Lower Klamath River would drastically improve water quality and restore hundreds of miles of historic spawning grounds. If we as the general public would fully assume our responsibility for consumption and protection of natural resources, we could turn out the lights, call Pacific Power and request the removal of their antiquated and fish killing dams on the Lower Klamath. The result would be a win-win situation for everyone: improved water quality and fish runs, restored vitality to the Klamath tribes, continued water for farmers, and a sense of pride among those power consumers willing to care, conserve and speak out.

  21. It seems that, ultimately, there’s something to be said for providing public funding to assist these communities in transition — as long as that money isn’t ransom, as I alluded to earlier, but provides these communities with a real, sustainable bridge to the future instead. I think the critical standard is that such communities show some willingness to invest in solutions themselves.

    The Glenn-Colusa example I mentioned earlier only came after a serious federal intervention on behalf of endangered species. But there’s another, more promising example in the Deschutes River Basin in Oregon, just a nudge north of the Klamath Basin, near the city of Bend. There, the agricultural community has been extremely proactive in morphing itself to reduce its impacts on the river’s fish.

    The story involves not salmon but steelhead trout, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and which have been cut off from the upper end of the Basin by a very large dam. Thanks to an inspired round of legal diplomacy by the Warm Springs Indian tribes, the dam is being modified to allow fish passage, and last year, steelhead trout were re-introduced to the upper basin.

    Faced with the prospect of suddenly having an endangered fish in the creeks and rivers from which they draw their water, the area’s irrigation district managers realized that they needed to ensure there would be enough water left “instream” to support the fish — or else they would potentially be liable for violating the Endangered Species Act. In 2004, they — with substantial help from a local river-restoration group called the Deschutes River Conservancy — formed the Deschutes Water Alliance, which devised a plan to transfer water from farms to the river, and to meet growing urban demands in the area.

    Because much of the water freed up from farms for instream and urban uses will come through capital-intensive efficiency improvement projects, the effort has a $135 million price tag. Some funding for the project has already come from the federal government, as will more in the future. But the balance will come from the irrigation districts themselves, as well as the state, groups like the Deschutes River Conservancy, and the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program, which is funded with revenues from the sale of hydropower.

    The effort seems a good model. All sides have acknowledged that some investment — and not just other peoples’ money — is needed to relieve pressure on the resource base. And, because the program has been planned to cover water needs for the next 20 years, the alliance seems to hold the promise of relatively long-term sustainability. In effect, farmers and irrigation districts in the Deschutes have acknowledged that, while they are giving up some of their water, they’re reducing the likelihood of a catastrophic, Klamath-style shutdown under the Endangered Species Act.

    — Matt

  22. Thanks, Matt, that’s good to learn of, this Deschutes effort. Similarly, and closer to home in this case, KBEF, or the Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation (KBEF) has been creating collaborative conservation efforts aimed at making the basin safe for both fish and farms for years. I interviewed their last director for the Orion Grassroots Network section of the May/June 2006 edition of Orion, in case any readers want to learn more about them. Or their website works admirably, too: http://kbef.org/

    Erik, Orion Grassroots Network

  23. Just a quick response to Greg. My research was varied and well referenced. I doubt this comes under the heading of “fiction”, however, I am always open to new information and I researche the information that you presented in greater depth.

    You are quite right about the problems of the wildlife on the irrigation project. In establishing this project, we have also split the eco-system of the area. Of course wildlife will follow water, even into the desert if we move it there.

    We do not want to lose turtles any more than we want to lose fish. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough water to supply both the natural eco-system and the one that we have created by making the “desert bloom.”

    Expecting this area to produce potatoes for the Korean chipping market may not be the wisest use of local water,soil and the bio-diverse eco-system of the region. The Klamath basin is water-stressed and cannot continue to meet global-produce targets while being critically degraded and environmentally under-mined past the point of recovery. Maybe there should be a limit on the amount of agriculture allowed in the area.

    But as you pointed out, I don’t live in the Klamath. I won’t have to live with the consequences of this degradation. This does not mean that I don’t know what I am talking about. I lecture to degree students in universities on sustainability, forestry and world water issues. The issues of the Kalmath are typical of the stresses seen in major river systems all over the world. The consequences of storing and moving water around are degraded estuaries, reduced river flows, eroding coastlines, disappearing fisheries, depleted soil, loss of fertilising silt, salinisation of arable land, loss of livlihoods, loss of homes, loss of habitat, degraded river systems, loss of species, agricultural run-off polluting water courses, eutrophication of reservoirs, algal bloom…not a pretty nor a sustainable picture.

    However, if you think that pushing the Klamath Basin’s environmental limits by over-farming and dewatering the natural eco-system are justified because of the economic expectatons attached to the irrigation project, then so be it. Maybe it is okay to remake our enviornment and undo thousands of years of bio-diverse eco-system development. I can only say that you had better have some pretty in depth research to back that point of view up unless you want to fall flat on your face.

    You and I can disagree until we are blue in the face, but ultimately, nature will have the casting vote on the outcome.

  24. IMHO,there is a superabundance of hand-wringing about who is entitled to what share of the the rapidly dissipating, finite resources of this planet, but very little cogent thinking about viable alternatives to a social structure that does not distinguish the aspect of economic value that is the consequence of eons of natural forces from the aspect of economic value that is a consequence of human endeavor.
    Our existing “rules” authorize and encourage private seizure and exploitation of he “gifts of nature.” Why are surprised when people who have power to do it proceed to do it during their own lifetimes?
    Are “they” at fault for being greedy, or “we” at fault for, collectively, being gullible and acting stupidly?

  25. Big development on this topic from Tidepool.org today: “The decades-old disputes between advocates for fish and the farmers who are their historic adversaries appeared to dissolve as almost all of 26 user groups, tribes and governments involved backed a plan to allocate the waters of a dam-free river. But the agreement lacks one vital link: a decision by the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp Power, to agree to their removal.”


    Orion Grassroots Network

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