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Feds consider calling in federal marshals in water fight

Associated Press

Friday, July 6, 2001

KLAMATH FALLS, ORE. -- County commissioners on Thursday refused to back up farmers and residents who used civil disobedience to reopen an irrigation canal that was closed to protect endangered fish.

On Wednesday, about 100 people used a chain saw, their bare hands and a cutting torch to open one of the six headgates holding back the waters of Upper Klamath Lake. They complained that the waters were not reaching their fields.

In a meeting with Klamath County commissioners, about 75 people who presented a petition with 2,000 names asked for a county ordinance giving legal protection to nonviolent civil offenders who try to open gates on the federally owned Klamath Project.

"It's time to step up to the plate," said farmer Paul Arritola, who added that he has lost $200,000 because he can't irrigate his pasture. "We're saying our ranches are dying and we intend to do something about it."

Commissioner Al Switzer said such an ordinance would have no worth because federal courts have struck them down elsewhere. Commissioners also said that they have sought farm assistance and have urged U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton to overturn the government's position.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the irrigation system, is considering whether to call in federal marshals to protect the headgates. "We have a responsibility to follow the law," bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken said.

The lake and Klamath River are home to sucker fish and coho salmon, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Because of a severe drought that further threatened the fish, the bureau in April 2001 began to reduce the amount of water diverted into the irrigation system.

Farms and ranches on 240,000 acres in the Klamath Basin have been forced to sell off cattle, let pastures turn brown, and give up contracts to grow potatoes.

Wednesday's incident was the third time in a week that the headgate had been opened in defiance of the Endangered Species Act. The water flowed for about four hours Wednesday before the headgate was closed.

A representative of commercial fishermen who won a lawsuit forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for Klamath River salmon said the government should enforce the law.

"If our boats had crossed the line into the Klamath Zone where they are forbidden from fishing, the Coast Guard would have been right there arresting folks," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the fishing group. "I don't see why we are not seeing similar arrests here. Mollycoddling of terrorists is the best way I can describe it."

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