With its annual average of 11 inches of rain, the Klamath Basin is not technically a desert. Geographers usually use 10 inches as a cutoff. But if these wide open spaces of Siskiyou County and southern Oregon are not technically desert, they are pretty close.

So how did this arid region in the lava-strewn rain shadow of the Cascades become a productive agricultural center — one where third-generation farmers and ranchers are locked in a fierce struggle with the federal government over their economic future?

Frontier mythology would suggest the transformation of wasteland into farmland came about as the result of hard work, individual resourcefulness and other qualities traditionally regarded as hallmarks of the Western character. In truth, it was made possible primarily by the same federal government those farmers have been reviling for the past six months.

The dispute boiled over in April when the federal government announced it could not deliver irrigation water to about 1,000 Klamath Basin farmers because the water was needed by endangered wildlife. The fight is not solely about the conflicting needs of farmers and fish, as protesters and newspaper headlines suggest. Nor is it about local control versus Washington bureaucrats. The simplistic slogans of the sagebrush rebels are inaccurate.

Instead, it is about the false assumptions of the past finally colliding with the realities of the present, about faith in the land's boundless bounty finally running up against the truth of limits. Despite the sudden blast of attention it received, the conflict represents merely the latest episode in a long-running drama that will intensify in coming years throughout California and the West.

Although little rain falls on it, the Klamath Basin is well-watered, thanks to drainage from the surrounding mountains that once fed a complex of marshes, shallow lakes, ponds and sloughs covering 185,000 acres of fertile bottomland. Early settlers thus confronted a paradox: Too little rain, but too much water.

Beginning in the 1880s, farmers tried to remedy the imbalance by digging ditches. Privately constructed canals, however, could only accomplish so much. By 1903, only 13,000 acres had been brought into cultivation. In response to local demands for federal assistance, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) began construction of the Klamath Project in 1906. Developed mainly over the next two decades, the system eventually comprised seven dams; 1,445 miles of canals, diversion channels, laterals and drains; 28 pumping plants; a hydroelectric generating plant; and nearly two miles of tunnels. The Klamath Project made it possible for farmers to drain and plant vast areas of former lake bed and marshland. Although the acreage varies slightly from year to year, farmers in the Klamath Basin produce barley, hay, oats, potatoes, wheat and other crops on about 240,000 acres irrigated with project water — with 38% of that acreage in California.

As has been the case with nearly all USBR undertakings, the Klamath Project was designed to provide cheap water to white homesteaders so they could replace native ecosystems with commercial cropland. The needs of fish and wildlife were ignored. So were the interests of native tribes such as the Klamath, Hoopa, Karuk, and Yurok, who relied for subsistence on the basin's abundant fish and waterfowl.

That biological richness was recognized early on even by outsiders. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a proclamation establishing the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge — the nation's first waterfowl refuge. In subsequent years, five more national wildlife refuges would be established in the basin. They now support the largest fall population of waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway and the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the Lower 48 states.

Despite early recognition of the Klamath Basin's ecological importance, expanding water development and agriculture decimated its wildlife. Two species of native fish endemic to the Klamath Basin — the Lost River and shortnose suckers — are federally listed as endangered, as is the Klamath River population of coho salmon. Whereas an estimated 6 million birds once occupied the basin during fall migration, the number has dwindled to about 1 million. Only 20% of the original wetlands remains. Algae blooms and contaminants in irrigation runoff contribute to periodic fish kills. Native mussels have nearly disappeared.

Two factors combined to produce this summer's confrontation, after so many years of ecological damage had not. The first was a legal opinion by the regional solicitor in 1995 declaring that the needs of endangered wildlife and native tribes must be considered before the needs of farmers when the USBR allocates Klamath Basin water. The second was drought. The region received only about half its usual rainfall this year, and there was not enough water in the plumbing system to go around.

In April, the USBR announced it could not deliver water to most of the 1,400 farms supplied by the Klamath Project, citing legal obligations to maintain sufficient water in Upper Klamath Lake to protect endangered suckers and to assure adequate downstream flows for salmon. Angry farmers, their fields parched and crops stunted, stormed the irrigation headgates and forced them open. Clashes continued all summer. Ultimately, USBR did deliver farmers about 20% of their normal allocation. By comparison, the agency reported, Central Valley Project farmers this year received 45% of their normal allocation.

Many Klamath protestors characterize the dispute as pitting an obscure and ugly fish — the sucker — against family farmers. They gloss over how the farmers' irrigation project wiped out valuable commercial and subsistence fisheries built around those suckers and the more charismatic salmon, and denied native tribes the productive use of the basin's waters. The continued insistence that irrigation be given exclusive priority also threatens wildlife that relies on the refuges — wildlife that attracts more revenue-generating hunters, photographers and birders to the Klamath Basin than to any other refuge in the nation.

Although the lines of conflict are complicated, the fundamental cause is not: The federal government led local residents to believe they would be able to ignore the social, economic and environmental consequences of their water diversions forever. That same hollow promise has been made elsewhere in California, particularly in the Central Valley, where the needs of fish, farmers and cities have already collided. A similar confrontation is brewing in the Imperial Valley, another cultivated desert, where wildlife in the Salton Sea suffers from irrigation practices and urban water agencies cast a covetous eye.

Besides independence and resourcefulness, Westerners have long prided themselves on neighborliness, although that has seldom been extended to inconvenient wildlife and native tribes. The dispute in the Klamath Basin has been in the making for more than a century and grows directly from the strategy used to settle and tame a dry, unforgiving region. To resolve that dispute, farmers may have to prove they're neighborly by giving something up for the good of those with whom they share the landscape.



Bureau of Reclamation, Klamath Basin area office: (541) 883-6935.

Klamath Basin Water Users Association: (541) 883-6100.

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges: (530) 667-2231.