Klamath Farmers Drop Out of Federal Mediation

Klamath Basin farmers who lost their crops when water was diverted from irrigation to endangered fish are dropping out of a federal mediation process seeking long-term solutions, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The board of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents more than 1,000 farms served by the Klamath Project irrigation system straddling the Oregon-California border, voted to drop its lawsuit demanding the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation restore water deliveries, chairman Don Russell said.

The mediation, which has met several times under the direction of U.S. District Judge Thomas Coffin, was created out of the lawsuit after Judge Ann Aiken ruled against the farmers' arguments that the Bureau of Reclamation failed to follow environmental laws in shutting off the water.

"It's going nowhere," Russell said. "There are so many players it's unbelievable. The only people who don't have an interest here is the Rock Springs 4-H Club. With the dropping (lawsuit) there's no place for that mediation to go for us.

"We're the only ones at the table that lost everything."

Russell said the Water Users Association would be deciding whether to go forward with another lawsuit seeking damages from the federal government over losses estimated at more than $200 million from the shut-off of irrigation water.

Faced with a drought and new Endangered Species Act demands for water to maintain endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River, the Bureau of Reclamation last April said it had no water for 90 percent of the 200,000-acre irrigation project.

It marked the first time since the project opened in 1907 that the bureau had acted in the interests of Indian tribes, which hold the sucker and salmon sacred gifts from the Creator, and commercial fishermen, who have suffered economic losses for years due to declining salmon runs.

After protesters forced open headgates several times and summer rains brought unexpected water, Interior Secretary Gale Norton ordered limited irrigation deliveries to resume, but it was too little and too late for most farms on the project.

Noting that most years there is not enough water for all the basin's needs, environmentalists, Indian tribes and commercial fishermen have been pressing for longterm solutions, including buying out farmland to reduce irrigation demand, and restoring wetlands to improve water quality.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the farmers' decision to pull out of the mediation was a major blow to efforts to establish balance in the basin.

"Every party but the irrigators seems committed to trying to arrive at a long-range longterm solution that satisfies all interests," said Spain. "To withdraw now would be extremely counterproductive."

Russell said he hoped that efforts by Oregon's and California's congressional delegations would prove successful in getting some direct aid for farmers who lost their crops, but acknowledged that chances were slim in the face of the nation's focus on fighting terrorism.

Meanwhile, the mediation session was expecting to take up at the end of October the results of a biological assessment of next year's operations plan for the Klamath Project.