LIANE HANSEN, host:
As summer nears, one of the West's most dramatic water battles is heating up again. Four years ago, in the Klamath Basin region, along the Oregon-California border, farmers protested after the federal government shut off irrigation water to help endangered fish. This has been another drought year. Farmers and the federal government say they're now doing much more to protect the fish, but environmentalists say the core issue is still being ignored. There's not enough water for all the users. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY reporting:
The Klamath irrigation project is so big that it takes nearly two weeks just to fill all the canals. About a hundred years ago, the Bureau of Reclamation drained huge marshes and exposed fertile soil. The extra water made surrounding land productive, too. It seemed like a win-win until the wildlife that depended on those marshes began to suffer. Jim McCarthy with the Oregon Natural Resources Council says each spring, birds that used to nest in natural areas do so in farmer's alfalfa fields instead.
Mr. JIM McCARTHY (Oregon Natural Resources Council): And the thresher comes through in May and it chops up their babies in their nests. And the seagulls come along, eat little bits of baby bird falling behind the threshers.
BRADY: Farmers counter that coyotes and eagles kill more baby birds than they do. And besides, they argue, they're also helping the birds. Each year, migrating water fowl feast on some of the alfalfa and wheat Klamath Basin farmers grow. Environmentalists say the birds would be better off if some of the farmland in the basin were returned to marshland. And they say the water used for irrigation now should be sent down the Klamath River to help endangered fish. Bob Hunter is with the group, WaterWatch.
Mr. BOB HUNTER (WaterWatch): The fundamental problem in the basin is that we've promised too much water to too many interests. And we're not going to be out of crisis. One interest or another is going to suffer each year until we bring things back into balance.
BRADY: Just how to create that balance is the debate. Klamath farmers say they've compromised a lot since the government shut off the water in 2001. Conservation is a priority now and some farmers are actually paid to not farm to save irrigation water. Dave Sabo with the Bureau of Reclamation manages the Klamath irrigation project. He says the problem is much broader than the current debate suggests. There are farms outside the project that use a lot of water, and there's a history of mining and logging in the region that damage wildlife habitat.
Mr. DAVE SABO (Bureau of Reclamation): I mean, you could, today, shut down the Klamath irrigation project and it's not going to result in the recovery of anything, not until you deal with all of the rest of the issues that are confronting the Klamath Basin.
BRADY: Last year, the governors of Oregon and California, along with the federal agencies involved, signed an agreement to take a big picture view of solving the Klamath's water problems. But any significant progress is years away, and meantime, another crisis looms.
(Soundbite of a large group of people talking)
BRADY: Another drought is on the way. Klamath Water Users Association president Steve Kandra delivered the bad news at a recent meeting.
Mr. STEVE KANDRA (President, Klamath Water Users Association): And we know for every sunny day that we have this time of year that we're going to have some stormy days later on this summer.
BRADY: Kandra and other Klamath farmers feel like they're under attack. Environmentalists argue the basin isn't suitable for agriculture. At more than 4,000 feet above sea level, they say the growing season is too short and there's not enough water to justify the harmful effects on wildlife. Add to that the subsidies farmers receive, and critics say farming in the basin becomes even more untenable. But Steve Kandra dismisses those arguments.
Mr. KANDRA: Everybody comes and looks at one place and says it's not the right place. What is? You know, a plowed-under rain forest in Brazil, is that the right place? You know? And some of the people that complain are probably the greatest beneficiaries of what we do--a safe, secure, affordable food supply.
BRADY: But the Klamath Basin supplies only a tiny fraction of America's food. Environmentalists say the birds and fish sacrificed to produce that small amount of food is too high a price. They want the basin managed more for wildlife. And Bob Hunter with WaterWatch says it's not too late.
Mr. HUNTER: The Klamath River, even in its really depressed and degraded state is probably the only major river system in the Lower 48 states where we have a chance of major restoration.
BRADY: Hunter says despite all the damage done, large stretches of the Klamath River remain relatively untouched. He says bringing back the wildlife would eventually boost the economy by increasing tourism and fishing. But that's difficult for farmers to accept. The federal government encouraged their parents and grandparents to settle this land. Environmentalists say land owners should be compensated. Farmers say they don't want to become welfare cases. While the basin's future is debated, the day-to-day fight over water continues in courtrooms. Currently, there are at least a half dozen Klamath-related lawsuits before judges. Jeff Brady, NPR News.