by Dani Nichols
When I was 16 years old, I worked at one of the independently owned drive-through coffee kiosks that the northwest is famous for. In my small town, we didn’t have too many hipsters or soccer moms gracing our graveled drive-through: this is the Klamath Basin, and my clientele were hay haulers, gravel truck drivers, ranchers, dairy farmers and ranch hands. These were kind and hard-working men and women – the kind of men who tip their hats when they meet a lady and the tough gals who can raise four kids and bale hay all summer while they’re at it. I remember their faces so well: the hay-hauler who always had an encouraging word and a generous tip for me, the cattle rancher with a fondness for our “cowboy cookies”, the dairy owner who came through at least once a week and bought a staggering number of mochas for his entire milking crew, the flatbeds piled high with irrigation lines or tractor parts, driven by community-minded folks, never too busy to buy a coffee, help a neighbor or shoot the breeze for a moment.
On Monday, those trucks and tractors that I saw so often as a youngster paraded through downtown Klamath Falls Oregon (225 of them, at last count!) but they were not loaded with hay, cattle, potatoes, fresh milk or irrigation line. They were covered in homemade signs and hauling the children of fourth and fifth generation farmers, begging anyone to notice their hard work and allow them the freedom to continue. They looked vaguely uncomfortable – these aren’t activists or excitable sign-carriers, and one older gentleman in a tattered ball cap even held up a hand-painted sign reading, “I’d rather be ranching”.
So what drove these men and women from their cows, fields, truck stops and mechanic shops? The Klamath Basin Water Crisis.
Thousands of small, family-owned farms and ranches have had their irrigation water rights cut off in the last couple of weeks, devaluing their land, forcing many of them to sell cattle, stop harvesting, cease production and fear for the future of their families.
Water rights are a complicated issue, even for those who are familiar with the workings of rural life – and this case is no exception. Here are the basics: the Klamath Tribes and the environmental activists have teamed up to starve farmers and ranchers out of the Klamath Basin, because of the lives of the supposedly endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, and the Coho Salmon of the Klamath River. Because the tribes have been in the Klamath Basin since “time immemorial”, a judge recently ruled that their water rights supersede those of the Klamath County Agriculturalists. What are the tribes doing with these newfound rights? Turning off water to agriculture, the main industry of Klamath County (plus a threat to refuse multi-use water to Crater Lake National Park, the only National Park in Oregon and a revenue generator of more than $30 million for Klamath county and the surrounding area last year) and letting thousands of gallons of economic and cultural force drain to the ocean instead.
It’s not that farmers and ranchers are eager to see fish gasping for air on the banks of the river, or that they don’t want to have healthy rivers and wetlands. Agriculture, and small family farms like these in particular, are true stewards of the land, carefully caring for wildlife and natural resources as much as they do their domestic productions. After all, without healthy pastures, watersheds and natural habitats, their livelihood also suffers. Beef, hay, potatoes and the countless other agricultural industries that keep the Klamath Basin economy moving are reliant on healthy environments and the farmers and ranchers have been open about their willingness to compromise and use the water for the health of the whole county. But the environmentalists and tribes aren’t interested in compromise or health. (To prove that point, they conveniently ignore the many warning voices who have asserted that the Coho Salmon are not indigenous to the Klamath River, or that there is plenty of water available for both fish and farmers). One thing they do want is clear: power, and complete and utter control over the life-blood of Klamath County, its water.
The economic numbers are staggering: $554 million dollars will be lost from the local economy without irrigation water rights, from agriculture alone, not mentioning the further Detroit-like impact of a shrinking working population, displaced families and a devastated economy. Over 4,000 people will be out of work and potentially will lose the homes, ranches and farms that have been in their families for generations, and the food production for more than 1,000,000 (one million) people will come to a grinding halt. Agriculturalists buy new tractors, pick-ups and farm supplies – they pay veterinary bills, grocery tabs and mechanic shops. Without the steady stream of income from the industry of Klamath County, expect every storefront in town to struggle (except maybe those that take food stamps).
But the devastation here is more than economic. An entire way of life is being sacrificed on the altar of political jockeying and power plays. These hard-working men and women can’t just move to a new town and start over – this is more than their profession, it’s their culture, their inheritance, their way of life and their community. Many of these small farms have been handed down (along with their water rights) since 1864, and generation upon generation have worked the land and provided jobs, economic stability, community growth and sustainable food production for over 100 years. Without these small farms and ranches, kids don’t get pony rides at the fair, and soccer moms can’t buy locally-sourced meat, vegetables and fruit. We won’t have small-town fairs and rodeos, our kids can’t take horseback-riding lessons, and we won’t have the option of going to the farmer’s market and shaking the gnarled hand of the man who grew our dinner.
If Klamath County dries up and the farmers are forced out, more counties in Oregon will face the same fate. Yes, Klamath County is a small rural community, and they are probably being picked on because they don’t have the clout to do much more than hold a small-town rally. It’s a classic case of David vs. Goliath, except David looks an awful lot like a bashful cowboy and will probably tip his hat and call you “ma’am”. It probably sounds quaint to anyone who didn’t grow up in the country, who’s never picked rocks out of a hayfield or played hide-and-go-seek in a barn or watched breathlessly as a calf was born. But this is rural America’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. They aren’t asking for much, just the right to keep feeding their kids and yours.
If you’re interested, here are a few sources for more research. This is an issue that’s very close to my heart, so I’m going to keep writing about it and fighting for my friends and neighbors, so stay tuned.
United States v. Braren (Lewis & Clark Law School’s Environmental Law)
Dani Nichols is a a writer, editor, and adventure-lover currently residing in Central Oregon. You can read her blog at www.cuteconservative.com