Hoping to relieve Klamath Basin farmers and ranchers whose fields are drying up in the summer heat, the government agreed to release a small amount of water into an irrigation canal that had been shut off to protect endangered fish.
"The Bureau of Reclamation has calculated about 75,000 acre feet of water is available," Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced Tuesday.
It may not sound like much, but draining Klamath Lake by a single foot gives farmers about 40 billion gallons.
The water will not be enough to save all crops on more than 1,000 farms served by the Klamath Project, but farmers say it's enough to save livestock and top soil. The amount released will represent only about 16 percent of what normally flows through the canal in a dry year.
"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."
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber supports Norton's decision as a short-term solution.
"This isn't about amending the ESA. This is about taking the biology, putting the locals together, and finding a win-win situation," he said.
Norton said the decision was made in part to defuse tensions among farmers who four times have illegally pried open the head gates to let water flow into irrigation canals.
"These are tough times for folks, and this is something they never been through in a lifetime," local farmer John Crawford said.
In April, the government shut off water to 90 percent of the region's farms to protect endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened salmon in the Klamath River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that there was more water than expected in the 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."
Environmentalists are unhappy with decision, insisting the surplus water should go to endangered wildlife. But the Bush administration has sent a strong message about where its priorities lie.
"We have legal responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, but for me personally, it is important to say we have been able to help the farm families," Norton said.
Fox News' William La Jeunesse and the Associated Press contributed to this report