Earlier in the year power companies in California and other western states were paying farmers to not irrigate. The buyback was advantageous to the utilities, which could profit by selling the power to urban customers. And farmers appreciated the income – especially in light of the fact many of them could face drought induced water cutoffs before the end of the growing season.
In southern Oregon there was no option of a power buyback from utilities for some 14-hundred farmer and ranchers. The drought and the mandates governing the federal water project that normally sustained agriculture in the Klamath Basin forced cutoffs to be enacted before spring planting.
(Slug airboat on the lake)
Through a strange twist of fate involving the Endangered Species Act the problem has been intensified in Oregon's Klamath Basin. In April, officials became concerned that water levels in Klamath Lake would drop low enough to threaten the survival of the endangered white suckerfish. United States Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton gave the order to close the head-gates that normally allow water to flow to the 200-thousand production acres in the Klamath Basin.
To reduce the load on the limited irrigation water, and the pressure on area producers, the U.S. government has offered to buyout farmers. Some have even taken the government up on the offer while others, like potato farmers and alfalfa growers, have just left the ground fallow for this season.
But for those who remain it has become a battle of entrepreneur versus environmentalist. And the battle has been raging for four months. In May, thirteen thousand protesters gathered in Klamath Falls to run a symbolic bucket brigade from the lake to the main irrigation canal.
And with no relief in site, farmers have also taken matters into their own hands. On several occasions, protestors have broken locks and briefly opened dam gates. Farmers have even bypassed the dam and piped water directly from the lake into the main irrigation canal.
(slug water coming out of the head gates)
This week there was some relief. Lake levels were high enough for Norton to order the release enough water to help about 65-thousand of the parched acres. When the extra water is gone the gates will close again. The release should give cattle producers a break and may allow alfalfa growers another cutting.