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Klamath Basin farmers fall victim to the Endangered Species Act

Reprinted by permission from Wyoming Agriculture, published by the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation - June 2001

In the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has finally accomplished what landowners and resource users have feared for decades; it has gotten them off their land, destroyed their livelihoods and decimated the local economy.

Construction on the Klamath Project was authorized by the Secretary of the Interior on May 15, 1905, in accordance with the Reclamation Act of 1902. Under the Reclamation Act, the states of Oregon and California ceded lake and wetland areas of the Klamath Basin to the federal government for the purpose of draining and reclaiming the land for agricultural homesteading.

In return, the United States declared that it would appropriate all unappropriated water use rights in the basin for the Klamath Project. Section 8 of the Reclamation Act attaches the water use rights to the irrigated land as an appurtenance to the land. The Act also states that the water appropriation would conform with state water law, meaning the water had to be put to beneficial use within the mapped area of the Klamath Project. According to state water law 'beneficial use shall be the basis, the measure, and the limit of the right.'

Before the project began, historical wetland acreage was approximately 359,000 acres. Many of the wetlands were not hydrologically connected to the Klamath River and served as evaporation sinks, which consumed over 1 million acre feet of water annually. As the project progressed, land was drained in phases and offered as homesteads, many of them in lotteries open to World War I and World War II veterans. Today, the Klamath Project irrigates 210,000 acres of farmland and supports 141,920 acres of wetlands. Canals and artificially reduced shoals have created an interconnected water delivery and drainage system that has about a 93 percent efficiency rate. Agriculture consumes about 2 percent of the water resource in the basin. Farmers and the wildlife refuges, together, need about 350,000 acre feet of water annually to conduct operations. The Klamath Project serves about 1,400 farmers whose crops include barley, oats, wheat, potatoes, sugar beets and forage. Agriculture is the basis of the $300 million economy in the basin.

In 1957 Oregon and California created the Klamath Compact, which went forward with the consent of the United States. The compact established a hierarchical priority of use for water appropriations: 1) domestic use, 2) irrigation use, 3) recreational use, including use for fish and wildlife, 4) industrial use, and 5) generation of hydroelectric power.

Originally intended for the creation of agricultural homesteads, the reclaimed lands surrounding the wetlands in the National Wildlife Refuges have been used on a lease basis by agriculturalists. In 1964, the Kuchel Act established and defined the purposes of the Refuges 'to be dedicated to wildlife conservation...for the major purpose of water fowl management, but in full consideration to optimum agricultural use that is consistent therewith.' Under the 1964 act, leasing was to continue the present patterns of leasing, consistent with proper waterfowl management. Leases were to be negotiated at a price designed to obtain the maximum revenues, and be used to grow grain, forage and soil building crops, with no more than 25 percent of the total leased lands planted to row crops. About 3,000 acres of these lands are no longer used for agriculture.

The shortnose sucker and the Lost River sucker were listed as endangered under the ESA in 1988. During the drought year of 1992, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended to the Bureau of Reclamation that Upper Klamath Lake be kept above a minimum elevation of 4,139 feet above sea level during summer months, allowing it to drop to 4,137 feet in 4 out of ten years. For the first time in the history of the Klamath Reclamation Project's history, irrigation deliveries were curtailed at the end of the growing season to meet minimum lake levels.

Upper Klamath Lake is a 140 square mile, shallow (mean depth of 8 feet) lake in south-central Oregon. Historical records indicate that the lake has always been eutrophic (low levels of dissolved oxygen). Before the dam replaced a naturally occurring basalt reef, in 1921, the lake dried up every year.

Andy Anderson, executive vice president of Oregon Farm Bureau Federation said that "except for the very middle of the lake, you could ride a horse across it safely after it dried up in the summer."

The creation of the dam in 1921 allowed year round storage of water. Information from a USGS Report suggests that having the lake dry up each year may have been beneficial in that sediments were settled out and dried, reducing the negative effects of phosphorus loading from suspended sediment. Creation of continual storage by the dam likely has contributed to a degradation of the water quality in the lake.

One of the charges being made by environmental groups and the Native American Tribes is that agriculture is responsible for 90 percent of the phosphorus loading to the Klamath system. Anderson cited some studies that have been done on the headwaters of some of Oregon's rivers (long before the water gets anywhere near agricultural activity) which show that phosphorus levels exceed the standard set by Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality. The parent material for the soils in the Klamath Basin is igneous rock. Phosphorous is released from igneous rock by the weathering process, so natural or background levels of phosphorous are quite high, explaining the historic eutrophication of the lakes in the area. "The more realistic estimate of phosphorous loading from agricultural activities is probably about 10 percent," said Anderson.

Other sources, or potential sources, of phosphorous to the system include septic systems. While Klamath Falls is an incorporated town with a modern water and sewage system; many of the other little mountain towns in the basin are not incorporated, and every business and home in those towns uses a septic tank system. Also using septic tanks are the summer homes in the basin that have increased in number over the years, and have, more often lately, become permanent homes for their now-retired owners. "There are many known sources, and potential sources, of phosphorous in the Klamath Basin. The only source that gets any attention is agriculture," said Anderson.

"There is plenty of data out there that is being ignored. There is no recognition of the fact that the largest die-offs (of the suckers) have been in above average water years, and that the highest recruitment years for the suckers have occurred in the years following a drought. They also ignore data suggesting that these species are not endangered, threatened, or even having a hard time," says Anderson.

"Federal agencies also do not address the impact of increased demands on the river. Biological Opinions and other narratives address only the perceived impacts of agriculture. No mention is made of impacts created by the summer homes, the small unincorporated towns, or the recent issuing of water rights, by the state of Oregon, to private landowners who irrigate out of the Klamath River above the project boundary. The problem of increased demand is being addressed by the government ridding itself of the people the project was created for in the first place," stated Anderson.

"We have three federal agencies here that are working at cross purposes. The Bureau of Reclamation is charged with managing the project to satisfy everyone's water needs, the Fish and Wildlife Service must manage for the two species of sucker, and the National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for the welfare of the coho salmon. Instead of managing the project to meet all needs, as much as possible, it is being managed for just a few species, each of which need something different. Something called the Hardy Study (done at Utah State), selected only data that supported the highest instream flows possible for fisheries. What they came up with are recommended flows that surpass the natural flows found in the Klamath for most years," said Anderson.

Larry Bourret, executive vice president of Wyoming Farm Bureau says we shouldn't be surprised at what passes for science with these agencies. "It is much easier to get people all stirred up about an endangered species using the politically correct notion that human use is intrinsically evil; than it is to address the complexity of nature and the complexity of the solutions facing us regarding resource management. We have been fighting the ESA long enough, and have heard enough nonsensical arguments trying to defend resource management decisions that have been based on half-truths, outright lies or just sloppy supposition; that it has become fairly easy to see what the end game is with these people."

"Even with all the changes that have occurred in the Klamath Basin, the fish are still there. Environmentalists tend to deny that species adapt to their surroundings. The goal is to have human activity stopped. In the Klamath Basin, the first step has been taken. The Nature Conservancy already has 25,000 acres from previous victims of this war; they are there now, along with others, buying land from people who have become willing sellers by force. We need to increase our efforts to see that the Endangered Species Act is reformed. It should take a high standard of proof, not just the price of a postage stamp to get a species listed. You have to wonder how many things, that really need our attention, have gone wanting because we have been distracted by social engineering in the name of the ESA," concluded Bourret.

For additional information, contact:
Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation or

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