(CNSNews.com) - President Bush has asked Congress to allocate $20 million in emergency assistance for California and Oregon farmers in the Klamath Basin, where on April 7 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shut off the irrigation water that supports 1,400 family farms.
The Bureau acted after professional environmental activists filed suit under the "citizen" lawsuit provision of the Endangered Species Act, and after a court decided that the rights of some "endangered" suckerfish and "threatened" salmon took precedence over the farmers' century-old water rights.
The request for emergency assistance is included in a supplemental spending request that Bush sent to Congress last Friday, according to a joint statement from Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). The funds, if approved by Congress, will be distributed by the Department of Agriculture.
"I am encouraged that President Bush has included these funds in his supplemental spending request to the Congress," said Walden. "The $20 million for farmers in the Klamath Basin is the only disaster assistance for farmers included in the President's request. The support of the administration in this regard is crucial. While this is an important step, much more needs to be done to address the needs of the farmers and others in the Klamath Basin. Addressing the crisis in the Klamath Basin will take numerous steps on the part of all relevant levels of government. This is a good start."
Senator Smith's remarks were more pointed, as he noted that no funds have yet been allocated by Oregon's Governor John A. Kitzhaber. "Hopefully, our state government will respond with similar financial assistance, because only a combined effort will effectively address this catastrophe," said Smith.
The House Appropriations Committee, which holds jurisdiction over federal spending, expects to vote on the spending package the week of June 11. The bill also includes supplemental funding for military and other needs.
In addition to the emergency funding request, several other measures are being taken to help the farmers and communities of Klamath Basin.
Walden has scheduled a June 16 House Resources Committee hearing in Klamath Falls. The hearing will focus on increasing the water availability in the Basin and the need to reform the Endangered Species Act to avoid similar catastrophes throughout the West.
Smith has secured a commitment from the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee to hold a hearing on the Klamath water crisis. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.
Walden, along with Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), has written to Interior Secretary Gale Norton asking for guidance on whether to request a meeting of the Endangered Species Committee, which would be asked to consider exempting the Klamath Basin from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
The Endangered Species Committee was established in 1978 by an amendment to the 1973 Endangered Species Act. It is commonly referred to as the "God Squad" because it has the power to declare an exemption from the Act's requirement that the rights of threatened or endangered species be given priority over all other rights, even if it means the species could be become extinct. It has been called into action only three times.
Seeking a long-term solution
Klamath Basin farmers say that very few cash crops have been planted this summer and if the irrigation water is not turned back on by July, even the "cover crops" that have been planted primarily to prevent soil erosion might not survive.
Financial aid, the farmers say, will help them through this year; but unless a long-term solution is found, farming and ranching will not survive in Klamath Basin. That, they believe, is exactly what the environmental activists want - in Klamath Basin and elsewhere.
"The crisis in Klamath is beginning to receive national attention, not only for the devastation it is bringing locally, but also for the warning it represents to other farming communities around the country," said Senator Smith.