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Klamath water wars: systems out of sync

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced this week that, thanks to higher-than-expected lake levels, farmers near the Oregon-California border will receive a small helping of water, about 15 percent of their usual annual allotment. But sprinkling a trickle on the simmering conflict will not end the Klamath water war that has raged here since April.

It's hard to imagine a worse mismatch than trying to run an ecosystem like the Klamath Basin according to rules set by the economic, legal, and political systems of our culture. The 1,400 farmers whose water was cut off to protect three imperiled fish species in this record dry year are trapped between these contradictory realities.

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For starters, nature's gifts vary wildly and unpredictably, interspersing wet years with dry ones. Thanks to the wholesale replumbing of the Klamath Basin and nearby Tule Lake, farmers in recent decades have been applying 10 times as much water to their fields as the three inches that typically fall from the sky during the growing season.

In a world governed by the ecosystem, a drought might mean cutting back on plantings, or shifting from water-guzzling alfalfa and potatoes to less thirsty crops. But our economic institutions demand predictability. Banks want the same payment every month on the mortgage or line of credit.

Processing plants demand that farmers fulfill the terms of their contracts, or they'll find other growers to supply their needs. As a result, one farmer near Tule Lake whose federal water was cut off is paying up to $450 an acre to lease land supplied with well water. That way, he can hang onto a contract to supply onions to a dehydrating plant - but the steep rent will likely wipe out whatever profit he could expect.

The pressures on growers require them to keep up production, regardless of the drought. It's inevitable that farmers will come to regard an ample supply of irrigation water not as a gift but as an entitlement - an attitude that ignores nature's homefield advantage, the right to bat last.

The conflicting claims on Klamath water arose because the political system is quick to make promises without considering natural limits. So the Indian tribes were promised they could continue fishing in perpetuity, the farmers were promised water for their fields, and two wildlife refuges - established on the fractions of lakes that weren't drained for farming - were promised water for migrating birds and other species.

Refuge manager Phil Norton estimates that meeting the needs of the three protected fish species - the coho salmon and two species of sucker - would require nearly as much water again as merely supplying the farmers and the refuges. When the basin is short of water, some promises will be dishonored, a phenomenon that is far from new.

"We've been hearing from agricultural interests how the government betrayed them, and is taking away their rights and their land," says Klamath tribal chairman Allen Foreman. "This is the same song we've sung for years."

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Into this mix, comes the legal system, whose underlying premise is that officials in distant capitals can make rules to suit every foreseeable circumstance.

But the ecosystems to which these laws apply are much more diverse than legislators and regulators can ever anticipate. What's more, the situation on the ground can suggest a fairer and more sensible solution than would ever be attained by following the letter of the law.

For instance, the federal government cut off water to 200,000 acres served by its Klamath Reclamation Project, while irrigators upstream are watering an equal amount of land to their hearts' content, despite the drought.

The reason? Federal agencies are held to a higher standard of protecting endangered species than are private landowners or local irrigation districts.

But from a fish's perspective, a gallon of water left in the river upstream is just as valuable as a gallon held in Upper Klamath Lake instead of being sent down the federal irrigation canals.

Under a more equitable system, the pain of water cutbacks would have been shared by all the irrigators, instead of being borne only by those who depend on the federal project.

The limits and gifts of the ecosystem are shaped by powers much larger than human society. If our political, economic, and legal institutions are to align with the natural system to which we belong, we are the ones who will have to change. Until we do, our decisions are bound to be out of step with the natural world, and clashes like the one in the Klamath Basin will remain the rule rather than the exception.

Seth Zuckerman covers the ecology and economy of the West for Ecotrust's Tidepool.org news service. He lives in northwestern California.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor