(CNSNews.com) - "At least they're not shooting at me this time." That's about the only good thing World War II veteran Paul Christy has to say in comparing his experiences as a fighter pilot 55 years ago with what he and his fellow veterans-turned-farmers are experiencing today at the hands of their own government in Klamath Basin.
Christy and 213 other war veterans came home from defending their country in the mid-1940s and were lured by the U.S. government to Klamath Basin, a high desert area that straddles the California-Oregon state line, by promises of a homestead including irrigated farmland with guaranteed water rights forever. In fact, Klamath Lake was developed in 1905 specifically to irrigate the basin's family farms.
But today, the government that Christy and others defended has decided -- with the prompting of professional environmental activists -- that the farmers' water rights are less important than the rights of some "endangered" sucker fish and "threatened" coho salmon.
As a result of "citizen" lawsuits filed by the activists under a provision of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the irrigation system, turned off the taps on April 7. The Bureau decided to set aside virtually all of the water from Klamath Lake to protect habitats for the sucker fish and salmon instead.
The lake is full, but the irrigation ditches are dry. Without irrigation water, the farmers' crops and pastureland - and with it their livelihoods and way of life - are in jeopardy of becoming a thing of the past.
An appeal by the farmers was denied by a federal judge. He ruled that although "there is no question that farmers who rely on irrigation water and their communities will suffer severe economic hardship" because of the Bureau's action, "Congress has spoken in the plainest of words, making it abundantly clear that the balance has been struck in favor of affording endangered species the highest of priorities."
Christy and his wife, Gertrude, started out with 70 acres of bare ground in Klamath Basin and whatever possessions they could fit in the back of a pickup truck. They lived in a 20 by 50 foot Army barracks leftover from a nearby Japanese relocation camp, and to this day, the old barracks remains a part of their house.
Despite the primitive conditions, "It looked like it would be a fun place to start," said Christy.
Over the years, the Christys have doubled the size of their original homestead and become one of the country's major horseradish suppliers. They have had good years and bad years, mostly depending on how much it rained.
"In the dry years we always shared our water with the fish and the Indians," said Christy. I don't think any fish died." The current water crisis, he said, is man-made and unnecessary. "The people who passed the Endangered Species Act had a good idea, but now it's being used as a club against the farmers," he said.
Christy said that although this year's crop of horseradish has been planted, there will probably be no harvest in the fall if the irrigation water isn't turned on by July. If there is no harvest, he said, "then I guess we'll get free cheese, food stamps and social security."
Fortunately for the Christys, they are retired and lease their land to a younger neighbor. But because of the crisis, they are not collecting rent from the lessee. "It's not so bad for us, but it's the younger farmers who are still trying to raise families and build their farms who are really hurting," said Christy.
One of those younger farmers is Marty Macy, whose father was one of Klamath Basin's original homesteaders. Macy, his brother, and his sister and her husband all rely on farming for their livelihood. He said that for them, this year without irrigation water is "a disaster."
"Everything we planted last year, all our winter crops, are devastated," said Macy. Now the Macys, like most farmers in the basin, are planting "cover crops" primarily to prevent erosion, rather than their regular cash crops of potatoes and grain.
Like Christy, Macy feels the current crisis is man-made and that the Endangered Species Act is being used as a tool against the farmers.
According to the ESA, the decision to list a species as endangered must be based "on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available." But the farmers are crying foul; they say the government ignored the best available data, and used "junk science" instead.
"The biological opinions they used to list the fish as endangered species were unsubstantiated," Macy said, "and they disregarded data showing the fish were not in jeopardy."
Besides that, Macy said, the farmers have been asking the Bureau of Reclamation for years to come up with a water enhancement program to include more storage facilities and wells. "They just keep telling us, 'We're working on it, we're working on it,'" he said.
"All of this has left a bad taste in everyone's mouth," said Macy. "We don't trust the federal government right now. We have been promised relief to get through this year, and we've been promised it won't happen again. But I think this is only the start of our battle."
At least Macy and the other farmers who live in the California portion of the Klamath Basin are getting some emergency funds from the state to drill wells. Gov. Gray Davis declared a disaster area there several weeks ago.
No Help From Oregon's Governor
But on the Oregon side of the border, farmers expect no such help from their governor, Democrat John A. Kitzhaber. And although they would much prefer to get water so they can make a living, their hopes are now focused on getting monetary relief from the federal government to get them through this year.
"They couldn't have hurt us more if they had dropped a bomb on us," said Oregonian Jim Moore, a third-generation farmer who has never seen anything like it in his 33 years of farming.
"They've been trying to take our water rights away from us for the past eight years," said Moore, who can trace his water rights back to 1878. "We thought it would never happen. Our contract with the government gives us absolute first priority. Now, with the use of the Endangered Species Act, they have finally succeeded."
Jim Bryant, operations chief of the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project which cut off the farmers' irrigation water in April, says all the farmers' contracts contain a water shortage provision that says the bureau can withhold their water for any reason. "It's callous, but there it is," said Bryant.
Moore, however, says his contract has no such shortage provision. But he and the other farmers in the basin just don't have the resources to continue the costly court battle.
"We have spent millions of dollars on lawsuits," said second-generation farmer Sam Henzel. "We have no money left to fight."
Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Environmental Activists
While citizens like the Klamath Basin farmers have to foot their own bill when fighting against the effects of the ESA, the legal bills of professional environmental activist groups are paid for by the American taxpayers under the "citizen lawsuit" provisions of the ESA.
Henzel expressed what most of the other farmers were reluctant to put into words. He said the Clinton administration, especially his Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, along with the environmental activists, purposely set out to destroy farming in the Klamath Basin using the ESA.
"They purposely brought in biased biologists to produce biological opinions that gave them the results they wanted [listing the sucker fish and salmon as endangered species, then declaring critical habitat for them]," said Henzel. The biological opinions, he said, were not even subjected to peer review.
"The farmers turned out to be the biggest suckers," said Henzel. "We have been used and abused. We thought we were playing the game, negotiating in good faith to make sure there was enough water for everyone. But we weren't even in the ballgame!"
Henzel, like the other farmers, also pointed out that the lack of irrigation water is destroying not only the farmers, but also the area's entire economy, which depends on the agriculture industry.
"It's a domino effect," he said. Businesses are closing. The area's Hispanic farm workers, who have settled in the basin and have become productive members of the community, are being forced to move elsewhere to find work. Schools are closing or consolidating for lack of students. Small towns are in danger of being wiped off the map.
And while the suckers and salmon may be thriving, Henzel said, more than 300 other animal species are now in jeopardy because they depended on the farmers' fields for food and habitat. "We are the true ecologists," said Henzel.
"Give 'Em Your Dirt"
Henzel said he hopes things will be different now that President Bush is in charge. High officials from the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture have recently visited the area on a fact-finding mission. Bush has asked Congress for a one-year moratorium on funding the "citizen" lawsuits that have led to situations like this not only in the Klamath Basin, but throughout the West.
In Congress, Republican congressmen are making arrangements for the House Resources Committee to hold a public hearing in Klamath Falls next month, and Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) has introduced a bill to revise the ESA.
But the farmers and other area residents aren't sitting still waiting for action. On May 7, a crowd now estimated at 20,000 gathered in Klamath Falls for a "bucket brigade" protest rally.
Christy, Macy, Moore, Henzel, and thousands like them are also participating in a "Give 'Em Your Dirt!" Campaign being waged by the Klamath Basin Crisis Team. Citizens of the area are being asked to supply a statement about how the lack of irrigation water is affecting them, along with a photo of themselves and a handful of dirt. The entire package will be hand-delivered to President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Interior Norton in Washington, D.C., and to governors Kitzhaber and Davis.
The purpose of the campaign, according to organizer Lynan Baghott, is to "send a clear message that no water means the only thing we have left is dirt." Baghott said the photos are being included so the officials can "see the faces of those who are being destroyed."
Baghott said several hundred people have already joined the campaign, which began during a "Mother's Day March for Water" in Klamath Falls. She said by the time she and a local delegation deliver the messages, probably sometime late this month or early June, she expects to have several thousand participants.