Researchers Blame Klamath Troubles on Racism

Oregon State University scientists offered a draft report Wednesday on the Klamath Basin water wars identifying a lack of leadership and an undercurrent of racism as obstacles to solutions, and calculating economic impacts at a fifth of local estimates.

The 301-page report was conceived last July after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shut off irrigation water to about 90 percent of the 200,000-acre Klamath Project irrigation system to conserve water for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened salmon in the Klamath River.

"The big broad picture is we'd like to raise the quality of the discussion about policy through information," said Jim Gallagher, an OSU Extension Service leadership trainer serving as facilitator on the project. "We were very frustrated that there was no certainty about what this all meant to the community. There were people arguing there was no effect because the Klamath is not an agricultural community. There were other people arguing, `Yes, we are.'

A team of faculty from OSU, the University of California at Davis and the University of California at Berkeley produced the report. Seventeen sections cover history, community impacts, fish and wildlife, water resources and law, agricultural resources, economics, public policy issues and alternative strategies for allocating water.

The draft was to be presented to the local community at the offices of the Oregon State University Extension Service.

The writers of the report hoped to use comments from people at the presentation and e-mails from people reading it on the Internet ( to improve the report, then issue a final version in March.

In a section titled "Consequences for the Community," researchers interviewed 70 people one-on-one and in focus groups. Researchers identified a clear lack of "visionary leadership" to craft workable solutions, a high level of frustration based on uncertainty over future irrigation deliveries, as well as an undercurrent of racism in relations between farmers and the Klamath Tribes.

The Klamath Tribes hold the endangered Lost River sucker and shortnosed sucker as sacred gifts of food from their creator, and have pressed efforts to protect them. Maintaining higher water levels in Upper Klamath Lake, where the fish live, was a factor in the decision to shut off water to farms.

One unidentified farmer acknowledged to researchers that racism runs quietly beneath the surface in relations with Indians. The report noted that contributions dropped dramatically from non-Indian businesses to a tribal social service agency that helps mostly non-Indians overcome drug and alcohol problems. The reason was the water conflict. It also noted that Indians standing in line at social service agencies had become much quieter so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Looking at Klamath County in Oregon and Modoc and Siskiyou counties in California, the report identified agriculture as a $320 million industry accounting for 7.9 percent of the Upper Klamath Basin economy, ranking behind construction and wood products manufacturing and above health care, real estate, retail trade and government.

The report calculated overall drought impacts at $74.2 million, and losses directly from shutting off irrigation water to protect endangered fish at $44.5 million.

Local estimates of agricultural losses last summer from the irrigation cutbacks were put at $250 million, and Congress appropriated $100 million in emergency aid to Klamath Project farmers.

The report noted that if Klamath River flows had been allowed to drop below federal levels to protect salmon, as they were during the 1992 drought, there would have been no need to shut off irrigation to the project. Also, some farms within the irrigation project were able to irrigate from wells.

Agriculture accounts for 5,964 jobs, which amount to 10 percent of basinwide employment. That ranks behind retail trade and education, and ahead of health care and motels and restaurants.

Based on 1997 figures, the region has 2 million acres in agriculture, with 2,239 farms averaging 896 acres each. The top crop based on value is alfalfa, followed by cattle, potatoes, pasture and grains.

The Klamath Project accounts for 1,400 of the 1,744 irrigated farms in the basin, and 195,000 of the 542,000 irrigated acres. The project accounted for $109 million of the $239 million in 1997 agricultural sales.