A Drought of Common Sense

Posted: Jul 15, 2001 12:00 AM
Imagine if one day the government cut off your water. You have no notice. You have no ready way to replace free-flowing H20. Your tap is dry. A faceless bureaucrat explains that someone is ahead of you on the water line. Don't grouse, you've had more than your fair share for years, you glut ton. Maybe next year, if it rains a lot, you can get some water. Monte Seus of Tule Lake, Calif., doesn't have to imagine that scenario. It's his story. On April 6, a federal judge issued a ruling that, in this drought year, suddenly cut off water to some 1,400 family farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin near the California-Oregon border. Farmers have used water from a federal irrigation project since 1907. But the judge ruled that the federal Endangered Species Act requires high water levels to save endangered sucker fish and coho salmon. So the fish get all the water, and the farms get all the drought. Standing in front of the state capitol, Seus said of his farm, "We raise mint, horseradish, onions, alfalfa, grain, puppies and kids.'' He considers himself one of the lucky farmers. He's sunk $300,000 into wells, so he has had to stop planting on only 200 of his 2,000 acres. Rancher Mike Byrne wonders if he'll have to sell 230 of his 1,000 cattle because they can't graze on unirrigated high desert and "we can't afford to buy feed for them all summer and all winter.'' If the Feds don't turn on the water, he wonders what will happen to his family and his community. He has a 21-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter. "I've got a lot of problems saying you should come back and ranch when this is what the government can do to you,'' he noted. Seus and Byrne came to Sacramento to support a Pacific Legal Foundation petition asking U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton to convene the Endangered Species Committee -- a committee of Cabinet and other high-level officials known as the God Squad .-- to overturn the April decision. "There should be a middle ground,'' explained PLF attorney Anne Hayes. She believes the government can fashion a compromise that provides water for the sucker fish, an issue important to local Indian tribes, water for salmon vital to fishermen, and water for the farmers and ranchers. Or as Byrne put it, "We want our fair share.'' In past drought years, Byrne says that sharing has worked: "We know how to make less water work where not one segment of the community takes the whole hit. This time we're taking 100 percent of the hit.'' What makes the farmers extra mad is that they don't believe the court decision is based on sound science. In fact, Norton's deputy chief of staff, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, said as much to the Sacramento Bee, when she noted that the studies that prompted the federal ruling "lack credibility.'' Seus believes this action is part of an enviro jihad on farmers. The enviros can't legislate farms out of existence, so the new strategy is to thirst them out. With the help of the first Bush administration and now the Senate. On Thursday, the Senate voted 52-48 against a measure by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., to overturn the irrigation turn-off. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Ca., was a on the let-them-drink-spit side. "Wildlife has no voice, and we have to protect wildlife, '' she explained. No need to protect farmers. They're just the chumps who put food on America's tables.