Farmers in the parched Klamath River Basin on the California-Oregon border got some long-awaited relief Wednesday when the government released a small amount of water into an irrigation canal that has been shut off since April to protect endangered fish.
Despite environmentalists' threats to seek an injunction to keep the pipes closed, the Burea of Reclamation released about 15 billion gallons of water from Upper Klamath Lake.
The water must travel through 156 miles of irrigation canals and will take one month to reach the 1,000 farms expecting it. It will not be enough to save all the crops on more than 1,000 farms served by the Klamath Project. It'll only be about 16 percent of what normally flows through the canal in a dry year.
Farmers say it's still enough water to save livestock and grow cover crops to prevent them from losing topsoil.
The water release was announced Tuesday by Interior Secretary Gale Norton after four months of escalating tensions between the farmers, whose livelihood depends on irrigation from Klamath Lake, and environmentalists who claim the water needs to remain in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River to protect endangered sucker fish and coho salmon.
"It is going to be too late for most people, but it may be able to save hay and alfalfa," said Chris Matthews, spokesman for Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. "It will help some."
Since the shutdown, farmers have already illegally pried open the head gates four times to let water flow into irrigation canals. While they are viewing the government's decision as a victory, the farmers are not giving up their fight to have the irrigation fully restored.
Farmer Frank Hammerick said the farmers must be wary that Wednesday's water release was not just a "symbolic gesture" by the government.
"We have to keep the pressure on. Nobody is going to be leaving here any time soon," said Hammerick, who said the scientific evidence does not support environmentalists claim that the sucker fish and salmon are endangered by the irrigation. "If you use the science, we will have a full allocation next year," he said.
Government sources told Fox News Tuesday that before announcing her decision Norton had to settle internal differences between agencies and officials who supported farmers and those fighting for the fish.
"We have legal responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act," Norton said, "but for me personally it is important to say we have been able to help the farm families."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that there was more water than expected in Upper Klamath Lake lake.
The basin, which straddles the Oregon-California line, has been plagued by a drought that has tribal fisheries, environmentalists, farmers and ranchers all arguing that they should be given the scarce water.
David Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, said the release would be too little, too late to save crops this year.
"You just don't start irrigating three months late and expect that anyone is going to get a tremendous amount from it," he said. "We're keeping things from totally bailing."
"These are tough times for folks and this is something they've never been through in a lifetime," said farmer John Crawford.
Fox News' William La Jeuesse and the Associated Press contributed to this report