KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger says he and federal authorities agreed weeks ago that he wouldn't get involved if farmers tried to illegally use federal water during this dry, angry summer.
Evinger and Klamath Falls Police Chief Dan Tofell met with Special Agent Steve Fiddler of the FBI's Bend office and Karl Wirkus, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Area office, in April.
The group agreed that if farmers and ranchers tried to illegally use water at federal facilities, federal authorities would handle the situation. Local authorities would step in if public safety became a concern.
So, when about 100 people illegally opened an irrigation canal on July 4, Evinger sat in his patrol car and watched. No arrests were made, and water flowed down the canal for about four hours, until a Bureau of Reclamation Officer closed it.
Evinger now feels he's being portrayed as an officer who isn't doing his job.
"I have arrested my friends and neighbors before in my law enforcement career. It is not pleasant, but I've done it," he said. "I will do it again if I have too, because I will do the job I have been elected to do."
Evinger says he's upheld his half of the deal, and Tofell agrees.
"Our officers honored an agreement we made to monitor the situation," the police chief said.
Gordon Compton, special agent in the FBI's Portland office, confirmed that the meeting took place but declined to comment on it or what was said.
The Bureau of Reclamation controls the Klamath Project irrigation system, which serves 1,400 farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin along the Oregon-California border.
The July 4 incident was the third time in a week that the headgate had been opened in defiance of the bureau's decision last April to stop providing water to 90 percent of the land in the Klamath Project in favor of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.
Since the water was shut off, 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.
Estimates of the economic damage show how widely the drought may be felt.
An Oregon State University study estimated that farmers could suffer as much as $157 million in lost sales, said Ron Hathaway, chairman of the county Extension Service. But the drought's total economic cost to the region is expected to be about $250 million, said M. Steven West, chairman of the Klamath County Board of Commissioners.