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As drought slams California and Oregon, Klamath farmers grow fish to quell a water war

Anita Chabria and Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

A similar militant protest took place at the Klamath headgates during a 2001 drought, after federal officials cut off water. Several times that summer, protesters forced open gates that had prevented supplies from flowing from Upper Klamath Lake into irrigation canals.

Farmer Dan Nielsen, who pitched the circus tent this spring, set up camp near the same spot back then, with supporters who included Liskey. The camp drew hundreds of people, while federal law enforcement officers stood guard at the headgates.

Tim Evinger, the newly elected sheriff of Klamath County at the time, was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight as tensions between local protesters and federal agents mounted. He said the situation was “like navigating a minefield.”

“My constituents, in many cases, thought that the government was overreaching, and they felt like they were being wronged,” he told The Times.

Evinger said he faced enormous pressure from federal agencies to arrest the protesters for trespassing and vandalism. He declined. Like many in Klamath Falls, he viewed the protest as a First Amendment right, as long as there was no violence.

The protests then, as today, drew the attention of the far-right. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, militia members decrying the “U.S. Gestapo” in emails volunteered to “fire the first shot at the feds.”

But Evinger said locals did a good job in preventing their cause from being hijacked by outsiders — something easier to do before social media.

“There were a few radical folks and hotheads that would show up and take the bullhorn or mic occasionally,” Evinger said. “And you just didn’t know what that was going to create.”

He said he would urge caution to the protesters today to not have their issue taken over.

This time, though, there are fewer farmers and more anti-government outsiders present.

“I’m not a believer that everything the federal government does is bad. They have a role. That’s why I stressed the separation of power,” he said.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 of that year, the protesters in Klamath Falls decided to pack up and leave.

The standoff helped push hard discussions around the Klamath Basin, which ultimately led to what many hoped was a historic, albeit complicated, compromise that involved years of negotiations and dozens of participants. Hammered out over countless meetings, it ultimately fell apart when Congress failed to fund it in 2015, largely because the local congressman backed out of supporting it at the last moment.

Goodwill evaporated. Litigation renewed. Many now wonder if any compromise is possible.

 

“The agreement really called on people’s better angels, and the dispute that is trying to be exploited right now calls on our dark sides,” said Jewell, who helped forge the later part of the Klamath agreement. She said she believes a compromise can be found, but it would require agricultural interests to acknowledge that the abundance of the past is gone.

“It’s a different time, and so I think many people who are inclined to protest are protesting something that is so changed fundamentally from what it was,” she said.

Mike McKoen, a third-generation farmer who, like Liskey and Barnes, is advocating for a compromise, said he fears a future in which the water remains cut off.

“When people start looking down the barrel of foreclosures, which is going to happen, when their livelihoods are drying up and going away, what choices do they have?” he said.

All around Barnes’ unlikely oasis, fields once lush with alfalfa, onions and mint are dusty and fallow. Irrigation canals are filled with weeds, except in places where ice-blue well water provides a shrinking lifeline for a lucky few.

Some farmers are so desperate that they are using tractor engines running 24 hours a day on diesel to pump that water uphill through jury-rigged pipes that groups of farmers have laid themselves, forming collectives of ingenuity and need. After the last shutoff, California funded the drilling of wells along the county line, but that groundwater can’t sustain agriculture indefinitely.

On a recent day, unexpected wind threatened to kill the onion sprouts in one of the only fields McKoen has been able to irrigate. He needs the crop to survive, since he has young twins to support and has already lost multiple fields of mint.

When the gusts blew up from the north, billowing dry dirt into clouds that battered the inch-tall stalks, it seemed like the stress might be McKoen’s undoing. He gunned his truck, bouncing it over the rutted lane that led to his sprinklers, where he flipped on a pump. The water lines came to life, spraying into the airborne dirt. McKoen did not know if it would be enough. The worry, he said, felt like it could kill him.

“They think that we are a bunch of rich farmers that don’t care about the environment, that don’t care about the tribes, that don’t care about the fish,” he said.

“But am I the guy that’s going to lose it? My generation is going to waste what those before me nearly killed themselves to build? That’s not a good feeling.”

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(Chabria reported from Tulelake, and Branson-Potts reported from Los Angeles.)

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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