Ranchers Fighting For Water During The West's Drought : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money As our week on water ends, we go to the heart of the conflict. On today's show, the ranchers on the frontlines of the Western drought are caught between a political battle and the climate crisis.

When A Drought Boils Over

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Sally Herships, sitting in for Stacey Vanek Smith. And today on the show, we have traveled out west to the heart of our country's water crisis. And I'm here with Ashley Ahearn, a reporter who lives out west near the Canadian border in Washington state, who is actually talking to us from the back of her pickup truck.

ASHLEY AHEARN: Yup, back of the 2500 diesel Chevy (laughter).

HERSHIPS: And earlier this month, Ashley, you went on a cattle drive.

AHEARN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

CARRIE FINK: We are moving the cows because there was a wildfire in here, and so they have to go further than we normally would push them for feed.

AHEARN: That's my friend Carrie Fink (ph). She's a rancher here in the community.

HERSHIPS: Ashley, you were helping Carrie round up her cows that day to help them find grass because of the latest of many wildfires in your area.

AHEARN: Yeah, it has been a long, hot, smoky summer. And on top of that, water has been scarce.

FINK: So there is water where we're going. It's pretty slim. We've had a lot of problems having water the last four or five years, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

FINK: We may have to haul water up here or we may have to pull the cows off early, depending on how the water source lasts, so we'll see.

HERSHIPS: As we have been talking about this week, the west is dry. It's burning again. Water is scarce and only getting scarcer, and irrigation has been shut off for a lot of farmers and ranchers.

AHEARN: Yeah. You drive around out here, and fields are brown. And hay prices are through the roof. Good grass for livestock is getting harder and harder to come by.

HERSHIPS: Today on the show, we are going to hear from ranchers on the front lines of the drought across the West, who are dealing with low water and rising tensions.

AHEARN: Or as the saying goes out here, whiskey's for drinking. Water's for fighting.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter) Which one do you want a glass of?

AHEARN: Oh, whiskey every day (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSHIPS: There were signs of how bad things were going to get for farmers starting early in the spring, when the snowpack levels were low across many states in the West.

AHEARN: And for a lot of communities, Sally, when there's no snowpack in the mountains, that means no water in the bank to keep rivers flowing throughout the warmer parts of the season as that snow melts out, right? And that's been hitting ranchers really hard this year. I want to introduce you to two more ranchers today. So first, we're going to head to Burns, Ore. I visited Rachel Beaubien (ph) at her cattle ranch back in April, actually, and things were already dry.

What do you need, gloves?

RACHEL BEAUBIEN: Gloves.

AHEARN: Rachel took me out in her 1986 Ford flatbed pickup truck. It was just this, like, battleaxe of an old truck - stick shift. And we drove across a field that at normally this time of year would be under a few inches of water with new shoots of grass coming up all over the place.

BEAUBIEN: We shouldn't be able to drive out here, but right now we're kind of kicking up dust.

AHEARN: She told me this winter she and her husband are going to have to dip into their savings to buy hay to feed their cows.

BEAUBIEN: You know, and then how many times can you do that before you can't afford to pay your loans back and you're just out of business? So...

AHEARN: Rachel told me that people in her community are frustrated and stressed. Farmers and ranchers who count on irrigation water from the rivers just didn't get it this year, and that's costing them - all across the west, millions of dollars in lost revenue. As of now, Rachel says there haven't been any protests or violence in her community. They're just trying to make it through, frankly.

HERSHIPS: But earlier this spring, a couple hundred miles away in the southern part of the state, tensions did seem to be reaching a boiling point. And the media descended.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A group of Klamath Falls farmers are becoming activists this spring as they fight for water rights.

AHEARN: Yeah, so over in the Klamath River Basin - that's in kind of south-central Oregon along the California border - if it's even possible to think about, conditions were actually worse than they were over where Rachel lives in Burns. There were record-breaking high temperatures, and then this huge megafire started - the Bootleg Fire. And it ended up burning more than 400,000 acres, so you're dealing with all that. And then on top of it, there's just not enough water to go around again.

HERSHIPS: And in the Klamath, there are a lot of different stakeholders, or maybe we should think about them like shareholders of the water in that basin, right?

AHEARN: Yeah, totally.

HERSHIPS: You've got several tribes fighting to keep enough water in the lake and river for fish - the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin band of Northern Paiute Indians in Upper Klamath Basin. They're worried about the endangered sucker; a fish that lives in the Klamath Lake and is culturally important to them. And then in the Lower Klamath, below a lot of the farmland, you have other tribes who are also fighting to keep water in the river for another fish - salmon.

AHEARN: And then add to that, of course, you've got ranching and farming happening, which is a more than $200 million industry in that watershed.

HERSHIPS: So in the spring, irrigation water for farmers was shut off for a whole season. That's the first time this has happened since the system was built back in 1907, and that's when things got interesting.

AHEARN: Yeah, so back in early spring, there were two local guys who bought a small piece of land right where there's a key irrigation gate. And this gate basically controls the central artery for water for Klamath farmers and ranchers, and these guys were threatening to force the headgate back open.

HERSHIPS: They invited Ammon Bundy and his group, People's Rights Oregon, to come and help them with the protest. And just in case you need a reminder, he's the guy who led the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge a few years ago.

AHEARN: When I heard about that, of course, I wanted to talk to somebody on the ground, so I called up Becky Hatfield-Hyde. She's a cattle rancher in the Klamath, and her family goes back to the 1800s, you know, homesteading roots on both sides. And she's been following the water issues there for a long time. Right now, for the record, she has zero water.

BECKY HATFIELD-HYDE: It's like you're sitting there in the ER dying.

AHEARN: She had to cut back her herd and sell off cows that she didn't want to sell. And then on top of that, she lost more than a hundred cows and their babies in the Bootleg Fire. Her sons went in afterward to see how bad things were.

HATFIELD-HYDE: It's really tragic and really awful because they had to put down animals that were suffering. And just to give you an example of how quickly that fire was burning, you know, like, they found the carcass of a charred mountain lion.

HERSHIPS: So Becky and the other ranchers, tribal members - everyone's stressed out because of the heat, the smoke, the water shortage, and then the Bundys add fuel to the fire.

AHEARN: Exactly, so those Bundy-affiliated guys that bought the land, they set up this red and white - it looked like a circus tent. And they started holding meetings about water rights. And it was a lot of saber rattling, you know, but folks were really worried who were following that that things could go sideways at a moment's notice. I mean, the FBI was keeping an eye on things, and they were in communication with the local sheriff's office to try to get ahead of any potential violence.

HERSHIPS: Because there's some history there - back in 2001, the federal government shut the same headgate to keep enough water in the lake for endangered fish. And local protesters forced the gates back open multiple times. Things got violent, and there was a lot of anti-tribal racism.

AHEARN: Yeah, and so Becky's watching this happen. And she's, you know, someone who's cared about water issues there for a long time, and she said it just made her sick when she heard the Bundys were getting involved.

HATFIELD-HYDE: It seems like that is just click bait for the urban public or for anyone just to sort of make assumptions about rural America and about our communities. And I see them as extremists. And frankly, real ranchers and farmers have had zero time this year to be sitting around at a headgate protesting something because we're all too busy trying to survive.

HERSHIPS: She says the protests just fizzled out. People weren't showing up at the circus tent. They weren't armed. They were not trying to force the gates open.

AHEARN: Yeah, Becky told me she drove by one day when she was in town.

HATFIELD-HYDE: And there's one very hot-looking man standing there - hot not as in you're appealing to me (laughter) but roasting out there on the pavement.

AHEARN: And so then a few weeks ago, the tent was quietly taken down. And so Becky's big concern now is that we make this a Groundhog Day scenario, where we see this thing play out year after year - low snowpack in the spring, hot, wildfire-ridden summers with no irrigation water that leads to escalating water tensions. And then just hit repeat. She says we got to get out ahead of this.

HATFIELD-HYDE: So yeah, I've had it. We cannot continue to go on this way. And the Bundys don't get us out of this. We get ourselves out of this by working carefully and thoughtfully together and not just thinking about our own little corner or our own little piece of pie because this is a system. It is a watershed, and it desperately needs all of us on board. All hands on deck.

HERSHIPS: This was our last conversation this week, looking at the historic megadrought in the West. You might have noticed a less-than-stellar jobs report today. We'll be digging into that on Tuesday, along with the end of those pandemic unemployment benefits across the U.S. Have a great Labor Day weekend, everyone.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from James Willetts. It was fact-checked by Kaitlyn Nicholas (ph). The show is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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