When the federal government shut off irrigation water on April 6, 2001 to 220,000 acres of farmland and two wildlife refuges to "protect" a pair of bottom-feeding suckerfish species and Coho salmon so plentiful U.S. Fish and Wildlife workers were clubbing them to death elsewhere, it forever changed the face of controversial Endangered Species Act and people’s lives.

The 100-year-old Bureau of Reclamation Klamath irrigation project on the Oregon-Northern California border became "Ground Zero" in the "War on the West," on that fateful spring day, according to Bob Gasser, co-owner of Basin Chemical and Fertilizer in Merrill, Ore.

The silence was disquieting in the expansive Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif., when Gasser in words and pictures detailed the Klamath water crisis to the annual California Agricultural Production Consultants annual conference.

There were more than a few moist eyes as Gasser talked about second and third generation farmers standing in line for surplus government cheese because their livelihood was threatened by a government they once trusted.

Weathered World War II veterans promised water rights for generations to come to farm cried as they saw their dreams shattered by promises broken by the government they defended on the battlefield.

Wildlife suffered

The year 2001 was also an "incredibly silent spring" for one of the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states; 480 species of birds; thousands of turtles, deer, antelope and other wildlife which depend on project water flowing in two wildlife refuges and irrigated farmland for food.

The science used to justify cutting off irrigation and wildlife refuge water to save fish has since been refuted by a National Academy of Science panel yet the National Marine Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuse to back down from what Gasser described as "incredibly bad decisions based on inadequate information" used to shut the water off to the Klamath Project.

The water went back on last spring, only after direct intervention from President George W. Bush, according Gasser. There has been no permanent solution to preventing it from happening again. "We are determined to gain our permanent water rights," said Gasser.

Klamath Basin farmers thought they had them, but 2001 proved the federal government can use the Endangered Species Act to take them away at any time.

‘Fight or quit’

The decision to cut off the water was a "sucker punch that was hard to swallow." Basin farmers and townspeople had a simple choice: "fight or quit.

"We chose to fight not just for us, but for agriculture throughout the nation. You do not want to be forced to stand toe-to-toe with armed federal marshals" at irrigation head gates.

This fight included one of the largest local issue grassroots letter-writing campaigns ever. It involved intensive lobbying, rallies and protests to capture the nation’s attention on the impact of two "out of control, misguided" federal agencies and their decisions that cost the Klamath basin farmers and towns as much as $300 million in one year.

"We must save the environment from the radical environmentalists," said Gasser. Congress, he said, must be held accountable for taking the people’s livelihood using the Endangered Species Act as a "tool of destruction."

Gasser admitted he and others were blindsided by the water cutoff. No one expected the government to choose two suckerfish over people. The shortnose and Lost river suckerfish were listed as endangered under ESA in 1988, but no one expected much to come from it because they were plentiful in area lakes and streams. The same is true for Coho salmon in the Klamath Basin because elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, there had been too many Coho making their ways up rivers and fish and wildlife workers clubbed them to death at hatcheries and sent them to food banks after collecting eggs for fish bait.

Happen anywhere

Klamath Project farmers figured wrong. The water was shut off in a heartbeat. Gasser warned if it could happen to Northern California and Oregon farmers, it can happen anywhere.

He exhorted his fellow CAPCA members to return to their jobs with a "mission" to support their professional organization and efforts to protect agriculture against unwarranted and unscientific threats.

"When you are going from call to call, get on that cell phone and call your congressman. Get involved...tell your story. The other side is doing it," Grasser said.

"The Endangered Species Act threatens the very existence of ag in America. It is imperative that ESA (be amended) to include people, families and common sense," he said.

The Klamath Water Crisis continues to be a struggle for survival. Armed guards are gone from the Klamath Project head gates. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured or killed during that tense summer of 2001.

Tension has lessened, but resolve has not diminished among the farmers and townspeople of the Klamath Basin.

"Real people are attached to these Endangered Species Act decisions — people with lives and dreams. Don’t let this happen to you," said Gasser.

Ironically, the standoff at the head gates ended after Sept. 11, 2001. Gasser said demonstrators agreed to disperse and not touch the head gates to allow the federal marshals to go elsewhere to protect the rest of the nation. It was the patriotic thing to do.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com