Feds Mull Calling in Marshals in Oregon Water Fight
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Federal officials were considering whether to call in U.S. marshals on Thursday to enforce the Endangered Species Act after angry farmers and residents sent water reserved for threatened and endangered fish into an irrigation canal.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also was meeting with officials of the Klamath Irrigation District in an effort to restore calm.
"It is a discussion of mutual concerns," said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken. "We have a responsibility to follow the law."
The Bureau of Reclamation controls the Klamath Project irrigation system, serving 240,000 acres of farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin along the Oregon-California border.
On Wednesday, a crowd of 100 to 150 people armed with a diamond-bladed chain saw and a cutting torch opened a gate that had been welded shut and reopened a headgate to send water from Upper Klamath Lake back into the "A" Canal of the Klamath Project.
It was the second time in a week that the headgate had been opened in defiance of the bureau's decision last April that severe drought made it impossible to provide water to 90 percent of the land in the Klamath Project without jeopardizing the survival of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.
Water flowed into the canal for over four hours, until a Bureau of Reclamation official closed it down, the Herald and News newspaper reported. Klamath Falls police and county sheriff's deputies observed but did not interfere because no state or local laws were being broken, the newspaper said.
The Bureau of Reclamation owns the irrigation facilities, but contracts with the Klamath Irrigation District to maintain and operate them.
After the headgate was opened Friday night, neither side wanted to close the gate, saying it was the other's responsibility. The bureau finally closed it.
"We certainly understand the frustration of the community facing this situation," said McCracken. "We would hope that cooler heads prevail."
Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger said he had notified the Klamath Irrigation District about the opened gates.
Irrigiation officials said the district would manage Wednesday's flow, estimated at 200 cubic feet per second.
"It just appears to me that they are trying to save their lives," Evinger said of those who opened the gate.
Since the water was shut off last April, Klamath Basin farms with no other source of water have been forced to sell off cattle, let pastures and hay fields go brown, and give up annual plantings of potatoes, grain and other crops.
Many other lands in the Klamath Basin served by wells or other irrigation districts are green.
Ron Johnson, a Klamath Falls farm equipment dealer, said the canal was reopened because people are frustrated and want to see something done.
"There is a lot of anger," he said. "It is really unfair to a lot of people who make their livelihood from farming, having everything taken away from them like it is."