Water wars heat up in the Klamath basin

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TULELAKE, Calif. - The Pacific Northwest is famous for its plentiful rainfall, rainfall in such abundance that water usually is divvied up between often conflicting interests without a hitch.

Unfortunately when the word "plentiful" is removed from the equation, deep fissures are revealed, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

This is the year the Pacific Coast turned upside down. Los Angeles received more rain than Seattle. And, while Northern California received about average precipitation, rainfall tapered off further north.

Society in the Pacific Northwest is based on water allocations. When the rain falls as it should, there usually is enough to make American Indian tribes, environmentalists, farmers and municipal utility districts happy. Like a den of lions, these disparate interests more or less ignore each other when they get needed sustenance. However, when the well dries up, they are just as likely to pounce on one another.

Perhaps the hardest hit location is one of the more arid regions of the Northwest. It lies behind the rain shadows of the Cascade mountains along the border between California and Oregon. To illustrate how dry this year has been, local weather officials report that the rainfall is only about 30 percent of normal as is the snow pack in the mountains that feed area lakes during long, dry summers.

This is the region in which the Modoc leader Captain Jack valiantly held off the United States Cavalry for several months in the early 1870s.

Now, with water shortages, the tribes feel they are almost under siege again.

After a century of American Indian removals and a shift to agriculture, three tribes, the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin, find themselves scapegoats for a collapsing farming industry. This is an industry whose practices led to the endangerment of the coho salmon and the suckerfish, two species prized by local tribes and environmentalists.

Echoing the tragic shades of the 1930s Dust Bowl, many farmers find dust-covered fields, which without water, cannot sustain the barley and potatoes they plant each year. Topsoil is being lost at a rapid rate and many experts believe this is the first time an entire community in the United States has been forced to quit farming.

Sales at certain agricultural equipment stores are down as much as 95 percent in the area.

Two weeks ago the farmers went to federal district court in Eugene, Ore., and found themselves in direct opposition to the tribes and commercial fishermen. While U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken expressed sympathy for the farmers, she decreed that the potential danger to wildlife was far greater than the economic needs of the farmers.

"These are colliding communities and interests, and many, many people have suffered harm," Aiken said.

Area officials say the situation in the Klamath Falls area is dire. On May 4 the farmers held a protest. They took 50 buckets of water from a reservoir, which in normal years irrigates their fields, and dumped them into the bone-dry canal from which they normally take the water. Sources say they are upset because they feel the Endangered Species Act does not take human economic hardship into consideration.

There are reports that American Indians have received threats and other forms of harassment. The Klamath Tribes, an amalgamation of several area tribes including the Klamath and Modoc, have refused to speak publicly on the matter.

A source in the Klamath tribal government, who wished to remain anonymous, says this is because they do not want to "stoop to their (opponents) level of ignorance and stay steadfastly behind what we know is right."

Another individual says area farmers and their sympathizers are instigating the tensions. He says he has had to work diligently to make sure that no Klamath Indians are involved in starting any incidents.

Though neither would discuss details, they say the situation has turned sour.

"It has turned into a nasty racial situation. The local paper here, the Klamath Falls Herald and News has completely shut out tribal opinion and have pretty much openly advocated for the agricultural interests," one individual said.

Yet another source, also requesting anonymity, corroborates this. A non-tribal member who was employed by the tribe for several years, actually lists specific allegations.

"There seems to be real dangers (to American Indians) to life and limb, bomb threats, etc. This needs to bring the national spotlight to bear on the business community of Klamath Falls which is behind the problem."

John Walker, publisher of the Herald and News, said he believes these reports are exaggerated. He said his paper is taking heat from the farming community for running feature stories on the local tribes.

Walker said most of the letters received at the paper are pro-farmer and he thinks this is responsible for the perception the paper is anti-Indian.

The letters are screened by the paper to filter out bigotry, but Walker said these kinds of letters are the rare exception rather than the rule.

Additionally he said the reason the paper has not done as many stories from the local tribal perspective is because tribal leaders have been reticent about talking to the press.

However, Walker said the response his paper gets generally tends to be sympathetic to the farmers. Though he would not state a personal opinion he said not all of the locals endorse the tribal position.

"It's a divisive issue, no question, but we have the police scanner on here all the time and as far as we can tell there has been not a single instance of a violent incident, at least not yet. Everyone is just trying to keep their cool in a bad situation," Walker said.

Still, Walker said he remains cautious about the area situation. He described it as "slow bomb going off" and allowed for the possibility of increased tensions, particularly among the young people on either side of the debate.

What Walker does not mention is that several local businesses have taken measures widely perceived to be anti-Indian. One local Klamath Falls eatery is selling a cod-based sandwich that they advertise as a "Sucker Fish Sandwich." The proceeds from sales of the sandwich are going to fight the Endangered Species Act.

Tribal members said some restaurants refused to serve them and that local area whites often harass them when they go into town.

The tribe has fared a little better in the water woes. Located on the north side of Klamath Lake, the tribe and individual American Indian ranchers have greater access to water since they are in the direct path of mountain water run off. Water remains fairly scarce even in this area and it is nearly impossible to transport water from the area to the drought-stricken area on the south side of the lake.

One of the tribal sources at Klamath said there is no easy solution to the problem, and as the area braces for the drier summer season the situation is not likely to get better.

"The only thing that can solve this situation is rain, and a lot of it. Other than that it looks like we're in for a bumpy ride."