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Indians Protest Over Klamath Basin

March 30, 2002

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) _ Prompted by an increase in snow and rain over the winter, federal officials released water into fields in the Klamath Basin, allowing irrigation in area farms for the first time since last summer.

Farmers cheered as the headgates were opened Friday, allowing the water to flow from a canal into the fields. Irrigation had been halted last year amid fears about endangered sucker fish and threatened coho salmon.

Members of two Indian tribes chanted and banged drums to show their concern that the Bush administration is favoring the needs of farmers over their own. The fish are considered sacred to tribes in the Klamath Basin.

Due to drought, federal officials decided last year to cut off water to about 1,000 Klamath area farmers. The decision resulted in confrontations pitting farmers against environmentalists and Indian tribes.

Only two months of irrigation water have been authorized because federal agencies are still awaiting opinions, due June 1, from biology experts on the long-term environmental effects of water releases.

``We’ve come to understand and know the needs of agriculture in this valley,″ Interior Secretary Gale Norton said. ``We have to find ways to balance the needs of the ecosystem and of people.″

Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman cranked open the headgates. Cheering farmers displayed a red, white and blue banner reading, ``Thank you President Bush for caring about rural America.″

``Let the water flow! Let the water flow!″ they chanted.

A banner carried by tribal members read: ``Bush kills salmon.″ When Norton spotted it, she said: ``We don’t think that’s true.″

After the expert opinions are in, federal officials will reassess how much water is available for farmers in the region.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have agreed that sending irrigation water to farmers will not jeopardize endangered species during April and May, according to a task force set up by the Bush administration to find solutions to the water dispute.

Environmentalists caution that giving farmers as much water as they need might mean that there won’t be enough for fish or wildlife.

``We don’t begrudge the farmers water. We just wish there was more effort made by the federal government to strike a balance,″ said Steve Pedery of the Portland-based conservation group WaterWatch.

Linda Lown, who farms 80 acres of alfalfa, said no one has come up with a way to guarantee a sufficient amount of water for farmers, fish and wildlife.

``People are skeptical that it will be resolved ... that there won’t be further challenges,″ she said.

___

On the Net:

National Academy of Sciences: http://www.nationalacademies.org

Klamath Project: http://dataweb.usbr.gov/html/klamathh.html

Interior Department: http://www.doi.gov

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