Time to Take Action
Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.


written by Reg Lequieu, Klamath County Assessor April 2002

            Two rulings shut down the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project, idle 250,000 acres of prime farmland, impoverish fifteen hundred farm families.

          On the last full day of the Clinton-Gore-Babbitt administration, new biological opinions regarding the federally listed-as-endangered fish of the Klamath River drainage were issued.

            First, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&W) opinion stated that to protect the endangered suckerfish of Upper Klamath Lake would require maintaining a minimum lake level of 4,140 feet.  Since the maximum level is 4,143 ft. that ruling reduced usable storage from a designed seven feet to just three feet of the otherwise usable portion of the lake.

            Then the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) opinion stated that, in order to protect the endangered Coho Salmon of the Klamath River, a minimum stream flow of 1,300 cubic feet per second (CFS) would be required.  Since historic flows are as low as 600 CFS (and historically much lower during drought as the stream flows vary with the ebb and flow of abundance and drought) this would actually require more than all of the remaining three usable feet of storage in Upper Klamath Lake on years of normal precipitation and snowpack.

            These two rulings shut down the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project.

            Approved by Congress in 1902, the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project irrigates upwards of 250,000 acres of prime farmland.  This is more than all the acres in grass seed production in Lane, Benton, Polk and Marion Counties combined.

            More relevant, neither minimum could be maintained without the existence of the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project. 

First, the historic minimum level of Upper Klamath Lake, before the project, was established by a reef at 4,137.8 feet according to historical surveys.  When the Link River Dam was built in 1921, it raised the lake to a full-pool of 4,143.3 feet and the historic reef was blown to further increase usable capacity down to 4,136 feet—for a total of seven feet of usable water.

The Link River Dam was built in response to drought years in 1918 and 1920 when the Link River (which feeds all water from Upper Klamath Basin drainage into the Klamath River) went virtually dry in late summer.  Photos from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s reveal this happened at other times as well.  This fact raises serious questions about the NMFS biological opinion that flows need to be maintained at 1,300 CFS for the Coho Salmon.  Historically, before the irrigation project built the dam and blew the reef, the source of the Klamath River would virtually dry up for as long as a month at a time.

Without the project, during the drought year of 2001, Upper Klamath Lake would drain down to 4,137.8 feet by mid-August and the Link River (the source of the Klamath River) would virtually go dry.  We wonder how the suckerfish and the salmon survived those many earlier years of extreme low water levels and water flows.

The worst example of unethical behavior we will ever encounter will be that of our own federal government.

            Two issues emerge from these decisions: an ethical issue and a moral issue.

            The ethical issue: This issue is the unilateral breach of a bilateral contract to deliver water.  The contract was made by Congress when the reclamation project was approved.  The contract was more specifically reiterated to, first, the World War I veterans who were awarded homesteads, and then to the World War II veterans who were awarded homesteads in 1947 and 1949.  All signed the contract that they would be provided water by the project if they settled the Klamath Basin.

            The moral issue: This issue can be summed up by asking the question, “are human beings actually less important than animals?”  Or conversely, “are animals really more important than people?”  A farmer friend, still in shock from the decision, poignantly captured this issue with his statement, “I never imagined that my own government would consider me so insignificant and unimportant”.

            Maybe it’s time to call a spade a shovel and recognize the underlying issue.  These “Naturalists”, who would unilaterally breach a contract and who elevate animals to the importance of humans, believe that moral values derive their source from human experience alone; ethics are situational, needing no ideological sanction.  This secular religion believes that ethics stem from human interest and that the end justifies the means.  They are arrayed against the traditional Judeo-Christian recognition that morality and ethics transcend us and are to be discovered and enforced, not invented and changed.  And so, we identify another front in the culture war.

            In closing, it is the hope of the people of the Klamath Basin that this crisis will bring about the needed long-term solution.  There is an average of 1.2 million acre-feet of water that annually flows through Upper Klamath Lake.  The irrigation project and the wildlife refuges combined use about 400,000 acre-feet annually.  Most of that excess water flows through when not needed for either the suckers or the coho salmon.  Long-term solutions would capture about another 400,000 acre-feet still leaving about 400,000 acre-feet to flow naturally through in the winter and spring.  Long-term solutions would capture enough water to maintain the USF&W minimum level in the lake for the suckers, to maintain the minimum streamflows in the river for the coho, and still provide ample water for the irrigation project and the individual farm families and farm laborers of the Klamath Basin.

            Since, at their summit conference (my term) in Reno, Nevada this winter, the radical left of the environmental movement made as their position and goal the elimination of 75% of all irrigation in the thirteen western states, I will predict that any proposed solution that might include water for agriculture will be opposed militantly by the radical environmental movement.  The culture war will intensify.

            What does this mean for the Klamath Basin?  Fifteen hundred farm owner families are in dire financial straits.  Another fifteen hundred farm labor families are looking for other work, mostly in other areas.  For instance, in the farm communities of Merrill and Malin south of Klamath Falls, there are now about thirty empty rentals in Merrill and about twenty empty rentals in Malin as I write this.  Owners of those rentals have no expectation of renting them this year.  Some have been in this office asking what we are going to do about the values.  Many businesses in those communities stand to go out of business.  It is beginning to affect businesses in Klamath Falls as most businesses report a downturn in business. 

This office just filled a vacant entry-level position; we had 33 applicants, we interviewed seven.  One owned a well-established restaurant business in Merrill and reports that her business has fallen so severely that she has to find another way to support her children.  She has little reasonable expectation of finding a buyer.  Another worked for a local car dealership for six years.  She reported that the dealership had sold 156 autos by the end of May last year; this year it had sold 33.  A check with all the other dealers indicated a similar drop in business.  This recession will deepen to a depression this fall and winter in this county.

Since this drought was appearing on the horizon on January 1, and because the decision to shut down the irrigation project was made three months before the beginning of the 2001 fiscal year, I am adjusting the Special Assessed Value (SAV) of all affected farmland to dry land value this year.  Of the 250,000 acres in the project, 200,000 acres are on the Oregon side of the basin (the other 50,000 acres are on the California side in the Tulelake area).  Most of the land in the project is Class II and III soils.  The SAV will drop from a range of $400 to $600 per acre down to $34.65 per acre.  Most farmers will still not be able to pay their property taxes.  Of course, the MSAV will remain at whatever it was plus 3% and SAV’s will be restored to irrigated value levels when (and if) irrigation water is restored.  This will limit the growth of the county General Fund, from property tax revenue, to about 1.5% this year.  Restoration of irrigation water and normal farm use values would cause up to a six- percent growth in revenue to the general fund when and if that happens.   The Merrill and Malin fire and park districts will experience actual decreases in revenue of up to fifteen percent this year.

And Last, after the budget committee gave all elected officials 3.5% raises, all Klamath County elected officials, under the able leadership of our Board of Commissioners, have voluntarily agreed to not take the raise.  The savings will be placed in a special fund to be used to address the drought issues.  A huge segment of our economic community would love to have “no raise” this year.





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