Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch
— by Lee Pitts

At the end of both World Wars a grateful nation gave veterans the opportunity to homestead land on the California and Oregon border. Guy Porterfield was one of those veterans who came home from the first World War and, together with his wife Mary, homesteaded on 80 acres in Tulelake, California in 1929. They survived the depression and through sheer determination, hard work and irrigation water they expanded their 80-acre holding and built a sizable farming and cattle operation.

In the year 2001 the same government that rewarded Guy Porterfield for service to his country by giving him farm ground is now attempting to take that same ground, and much more, away from his son.

An Unnatural Disaster

In 1905 the United States government signed a contract with Klamath Basin homesteaders to provide water for their agricultural operations FOREVER. On April 6 of this year the Bureau of Reclamation announced that farmers and ranchers within the Klamath Project would receive no water. None. Zip. It´s not that the water is not available. Sure, this has been a drouth year, but Klamath Lake still has plenty of water in it. It´s just that the government has changed its priorities . . . and the rules.

The Fish and Wildlife Department now recommends that the level in Klamath Lake at the end of the irrigation season be maintained a foot higher than previous minimums. They contend this is being done to protect bottom dwelling sucker fish that, in the past, the very same government tried to kill off. At the same time the feds also are saying they need to take additional measures to protect the coho salmon in the Lower Klamath River, because they are a threatened species. So we are left with lakes that need to be kept higher for the sucker fish while at the same time they need to release more water for the salmon on the other end. And this all has to be done during a drouth year. So, instead of trying to save the descendants of those who served our country, the people are now being sacrificed to save the suckers. This is clearly a bold example of stupidity and greed on the part of a government, that in this case, more closely resembles the socialistic and tyrannical government that Harold Porterfield, and others like him, defeated in two World Wars.

Economic Genocide

In 1902 Congress passed the Reclamation Act which allowed for the construction of one of the most efficient reclamation projects in our nation´s history: The Klamath Project. The goal from the beginning was to capture run-off, store it, distribute it for agricultural production, and return the remaining water back to rivers and streams of the Klamath watershed. A watershed that covers 9,000 square miles and contains 185 miles of canals, 516 miles of ditches, 45 pumping plants and several dams. All built to help feed people and sustain communities. In the beginning no mention was ever made of sucker fish.

At the headwaters of the project is Klamath Lake which can hold 1.2 million acre feet. In the past, 30% of the total of the water collected was used for agricultural purposes on a quarter million acres of farm land, and to sustain the 45,000 acres of the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The irrigation project was successful: small communities were nurtured by enhanced ag production, businesses flourished, wildlife species were introduced and families sent down roots along with the crops they planted. Then in 1972 Congress created the Endangered Species Act, which has since become well known as the Trojan Horse that has allowed unelected bureaucrats and screaming greenies to impose their will on communities far from where they live. In the Klamath Basin the ESA is being used once again, perhaps in its most brazen form, as a form of economic genocide. What the federal government has in mind is to wipe out the farmers and ranchers in the area so they can take over the ground they covet. Area resident John Staunton has called it “the largest taking of private property by the government in history.” He wonders why it has not attracted national attention. So do we.

The Grim Reaper

This story really has little to do with suckers and salmon and more to do with a land grab. Farmers in the area have suffered through four bad years of low prices, primarily for potatoes, a major crop in the area. Many farmers are already on the economic edge and going without income for another year will push many into bankruptcy. Waiting in the wings like a grim reaper is the Nature Conservancy, ready to buy up their lands at distressed prices. They already have an option on 20,000 acres in the area that we know of. If they follow their past history, the group, often called “The Government´s Realtor”, will buy up the land and sell it to the federal government at a later date for a big profit.

This is not something that MAY happen: it is happening. Our government is forcing thousands of farmers and ranchers out of business and destroying a regional economy in the process. And for what? A sucker fish they spent years trying to eliminate. This is an agricultural region that depends on farming, and water is its lifeblood. The Bureau of Reclamation has its hand firmly on the water spigot in the Klamath Project. They have the final say on who gets the water, how much and when. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service came out with their own studies that indicated that several sub-species of sucker fish and the coho salmon MIGHT be further endangered if all the water was not saved for them, the Bureau of Reclamation turned off the water faucet. Almost without warning they turned the tap off completely. Their timing was critical, if not suspect. They waited until water was needed at planting time. Even if the White House or the courts were to give the farmers and ranchers a reprieve it would already be too late for most.

In the aftermath of the fed´s decision the economic loss to the region is predicted to be between $300 and $400 million. The impact will ripple far beyond farm families. Without water property values will plummet, perennial crops will be damaged beyond repair, there will be massive unemployment and a loss in tax base will mean lost revenue for schools, fire departments, libraries, parks, churches, community service organizations and county and city government´s. When 1,000 angry citizens of Tulelake gathered at the High School to hear from their Congressman, the principal organized a walk out of 200 students to demonstrate the comparative loss the school and town of Tulelake will suffer as a result of the fed´s actions.

Speculative Guesswork

The federal government´s answer is a “possibility” of low interest loans for the affected farmers and ranchers. But what good does borrowing more money do if you have no way to raise a crop and pay it back? Others suggest that the farmers should have bought crop insurance. But why would they, if for seventy-five years there has been an uninterrupted flow of irrigation water from their irrigation project?

The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors and other local governments have prepared documents asking California´s Governor to declare the area a disaster area. Harold Porterfield´s nephew, Russell, sent a letter to the Bush administration on behalf of the Board stating: “This is ironic for one of the most fertile valleys in the country, that has adequate water would be declared a disaster area because of a fish.”

And a poor excuse for a fish at that!

“What the farmers really need is water,” says Russell Porterfield. “Not federal funds to subsidize their operations. They just need the water necessary to grow their crops and put food on our tables which has been their way of life for 150 years.” Porterfield wrote that “the government agencies in this area have abused and even criminally used the Endangered Species Act as a means to destroy the agricultural base in this county.” Porterfield contends this gross and criminal abuse is based on false information and “a blatant disregard for the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The federal Government cannot continue its pattern of taking water away based on speculative guesswork, especially when those decisions will have such negative impacts to real people.”

The information Porterfield alluded to was issued on March 13 of this year when Fish and Wildlife released a draft of their latest biological “guess” as to the general well being of the Lost River and shortnose sucker. That report came to the conclusion that the Klamath Reclamation Project threatens the existence of both the sucker and coho salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife department then gave the Klamath Water Users Association, the four Indian tribes in the area, and state agencies ONLY TEN DAYS to make public comment.

“Guess Numbers”

This is what we know for sure: The shortnose sucker was placed on the endangered species list 16 years after the Act was created. Many conflicting studies have been done in an attempt to determine their population and what environmental factors impact their population. Studies done independently of the government´s came to vastly different findings than those done by ESA biologists. Yet none of the findings from independent scientists were considered in shutting off the water. Water, by the way, which had already been paid for by the farmers and ranchers.

We know the bureaucrats want to keep Klamath Lake, Clear Lake and Tule Lake at high water for the benefit of the suckers and yet spawning for sucker fish is done from one to four feet. In lakes, spawning sucker fish prefer the shoreline areas because the water is more shallow. Adult suckers reside in depths from six to nine feet. And they are bottom feeders. They do better in shallow water. So why is the government trying to build up the reservoirs? In fact, the major sucker fish kills occurred as a result of high water years, not drouth years like this one.

We also know, for a fact, that the suckers survived in the area even when many lakes and rivers in the area went completely dry. The low lake levels in 1992 and 1994 did not result in any sucker fish kills and the 1992 drought in the area produced the largest coho salmon run ever. And yes, the suckers even survived the best efforts of our government to destroy them. Something many farmers and ranchers in the area may not be able to say after going dry for at least a year. After all, no one has promised the water will be turned back on next year or in years following.

This is what we don´t know: how many of the suckers there are. According to Mark Buettner, fishery biologist for the U.S Bureau of Reclamation, the population figures for the shortnosed sucker “are not precisely known.” The numbers they use are referred to as “guess numbers” and determined by the “best professional judgment.” The guess estimates for 2001 is 192,400 shortnose suckers and 56,850 Lost River suckers. But these numbers represent suckers in adult life stages only.

A Slow Death

A good case can be made that the Bureau of Reclamation´s single species management could hurt other wildlife in the area. Thousands of ducks, geese, pheasants, deer, quail and antelope will be denied food, shelter and in some cases, even water. After irrigation water was made available for agriculture the area became a stopover spot for migrating geese, ducks and other birds. In the winter die-off these birds provide food for an estimated 1,000 bald eagles in the area, the largest population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. One wildlife manager told Harold Porterfield that it takes 125,000 birds just to feed the eagle population.

It is a common site to see white geese by the thousands clipping the short grass after cattle have grazed it in the fall. They depend on ag crops for much of their diet. First crop, new growth geese feed on farmlands on their first trip back home. Without water there might not be a “first crop” of geese next year. And as one resident asked during an angry town hall meeting, “If the water is taken away who will give water to the spotted owl at the edge of a dry ditch?”

Emotional residents wonder aloud in meetings how this irresponsible act can even be constitutional or at least not in violation of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. “How can the Endangered Species Act override all other laws?” they wonder. Those affected can go to court, and have. And there have been demonstrations such as the Bucket Brigade where concerned residents ceremoniously scooped up buckets out of the lake and dumped it into an irrigation canal. But so far the only further action the feds have taken was to EXPAND the area that will not receive irrigation water this year to include the Bonanza, Clear Lake and Gerber irrigation districts.

For many it´s already too late. For others it will be a slow death. Like Harold Porterfield who turns out a large string of calves every year on flood irrigated pastures to sell at 800 to 900 pounds as yearlings. This year he may be forced to sell them three months earlier and weighing 150 pounds less. “I´m 74 years old now. I don´t have to do anything else. But what about the next generation? What will they do?”

Unless they can get a job counting sucker fish for the U.S. government they´ll probably be forced to move out of the area.

And another agricultural region bites the dust.