(CNSNews.com) - The mood at the camp at the headgates of the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project was tense Thursday morning as the Bureau of Reclamation personnel, guarded by Bureau of Land Management rangers, closed the gates letting water into the canals and ditches.
Even the rain that left two rainbows behind failed to lift the spirits of the protesters who had left the camp the evening before, as the word reached them that the water had been turned off at about 5 a.m. Thursday.
Activists are striving mightily to maintain the peace, but emotions are close to the surface.
"Right now, there are still a lot of people [back] at the camp. You could cut the air with a knife," said Sue Morin, who has been involved in the camp since May when farm women defied a court order and let water flow into the canals and ditches to water the farmland.
"People were ready to go in," when BLM officers threatened to mace two women and one man in a boat that came in close to the gates to hand the rangers their 'dismissal papers.' "Rangers made a wise decision not to do that," she said, and the boaters left the gates.
Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District (KID), which controls the canals just south of the Upper Klamath Lake, said there are about 5,000 acre feet of water left in the canals at this time.
"We started to shut all the gates off to hold the water and gradually take it down," he said, "and are still in the process now. So, even though the canal looks like its full, it's basically dead water sitting in it now."
Even though the district normally opens the gates in the spring and closes them again when the growing season is over in fall, Solem said, "Reclamation felt that for security reasons, they would do it."
No KID people were there during the closing of the gates this morning, he said. "They informed us they were going to shut off the headgates. We're just going to handle our system downstream."
Cooler heads are becoming fewer, but protesters still are holding out hope that Klamath County commissioners and the county sheriff will back them when they present the results of a vote of irrigators in the project.
During the past three days, Klamath Project irrigators have been signing a petition reading, "I hereby request that the title, management and operation of the Klamath Project be passed to the owners of the lands irrigated thereby."
Irrigators believe the management of the many irrigation districts that make up the project is not adequately supporting them.
"They are telling these districts that by signing this they want ownership in their name, as opposed to no one's name, and as opposed to the KWUA or a certain district," said Carmen Bair, another protestor who has led the vote effort. "I'm afraid a disaster is about to happen. We're losing control of these people."
When the number of irrigators voting in favor of the petition amount to more than half of the 1,400 families using water from the project, the petitions will be presented to commissioners and the sheriff with a request that the BLM rangers be asked to leave the area.
"If they appear to be trying to stall, the gates will be taken back by the people. It will be announced, so there will be enough people there to make sure there are no problems with BLM and getting them to turn around and walk away," Morin said.
Solem reflected on his experiences during the past 13 years of discussions with environmentalists and government agencies relating to the Endangered Species Act.
"What it shows me today is that the ESA is so inflexible, is such a poorly written, flawed act, that it requires this to happen," he said.
Bair pleads for understanding as the farmers and ranchers attempt to gain control of the water.
"We are not a bunch of scary radicals. If radical means standing up for your rights in a free country, then we are radical. If radical means protecting your business, family and history from ruin, then we are radicals," she said.