The emotional lift from the Bucket Brigade of the previous weekend was wearing off.
A week earlier people formed a mile-long Bucket Brigade in Klamath Falls, county seat in Klamath County, Oregon. They had moved buckets of water from the A Canal to Lake Ewauna in a symbolic protest of the federal government’s shutoff of irrigation to the area farmed on both sides of the state line separating California and Oregon.
Farmers who had proudly produced food for people and livestock for decades were stunned when the water stopped. Many were World War II veterans who had been awarded farmland in a lottery held by the federal government. They could not believe they had been betrayed by the country they had served.
Klamath farmers had paid for the irrigation project which moved water from the headgate at the A Canal to their land, where they produced the best hay in the West, potatoes, horseradishes, cattle and other crops. Now their land was going dry and crops were dying because a federal court in Eugene had ruled that the water must go into the river in order to protect fish, primarily the sucker, but also implicitly, salmon.
It’s a long story, with scientific studies challenged by other scientists. The court ignored the challenges and ordered the water to be diverted.
But that Mother’s Day in 2001, in the letdown after the excitement of the previous week, families took a break from the stress and went on picnics in the park just above the headgate. Several women sat on the hill staring down at that chokepoint in the water system. They looked at each other and said, “Why not?”
Slowly they walked down the hill toward the barrier to the life-giving water. One woman walked out on the wall where the wheel controlling the gate was. She turned the wheel. Water poured through, filling the empty canal and rolling down toward the dry farmland. Cheers went up from the park. Dispirited men suddenly stood up straighter.
News about that defiant move spread like a shock wave. It electrified the region, the state, and the federal government.
There were many heroes in this battle, which continues to this day. For example, when reporters asked Tim Evinger, the young sheriff who had just been elected a few months earlier to his first term as Klamath County Sheriff, whether he was going to stop this illegal activity, which some characterized as “destruction of federal property.”
But it turns out that the wheel at the headgate was not harmed. The farmers would never harm their own property. The sheriff said his job was to protect people, not the property of federal government.
The federal bureaucrats turned the water off again. In the middle of the night, the water flowed again. This defiance was a total surprise. Farmers are peaceable, law-abiding, patriotic people. How could this be happening?
As summer arrived, the quiet struggle intensified. People began to gather at the headgates. A local businessman provided a tent to protect them against the heat. Recognizing the growing desperation of farmers and ranchers with no expectation of incomecrops, both psychological and physical, other businesses and people began to provide meals out under the tent.
The government hardened the headgates – first fixing the wheel so it could no longer be turned (quickly defeated with bolt-cutters), putting up eight-foot high chainlink fencing, and eventually staffing the barricaded area with armed federal officials from BLM, Forest Service, Park rangers and other agencies.
That wasn’t a particularly smart move. Farmers and their supporters, who had come in from around the country, engaged the agents in conversations that began innocently enough. “So, how long have you been a park ranger? I’ve got several kids. Do you have any? Have you ever done anything like this before? No? What do you tell your children you are doing when you go home? Have you ever heard of the Nuremburg trials?”
Meals under the tent were always preceded by Salute to the Flag and Prayer before Meals. Sometimes they would sing a hymn. One time, horseback riders carrying the U.S. flag rode up over the hill toward the headgates. The farmers immediately rose, took off their hats, and put their hands over their hearts. They stared pointedly over at the federal agents. The agents finally sheepishly took off their hats and stood at attention as the flag passed by.
To keep the momentum, to keep their spirits up, and to support the people contributing the tent, food and other items, irrigators put on a huge dinner at the county fairgrounds. There was an auction of more contributed items and speeches by politicians. People came from miles around for the huge parade that preceded the dinner.
One big rig from Montana carried a banner listing all the natural resources that had been shut down and jobs lost in forestry, farming and mining. As the rig passed the crowd in front of the Klamath County Courthouse, a woman in the truck leaned out the window, waved her hat, smiled broadly and yelled, “We’re from Montana and we’re MAD!” This was in reference to hysterical, urban newspaper reports worried about angry protesters perhaps getting out of control. Everyone hearing her cheered, clapped and laughed.
At the end of August, things appeared to be coming to a head. Plans to breach the barrier by climbing over the chainlink fence became public, thanks to KBC.org. Early that evening, water supporters brought in ladders. The Klamath Falls Police department and Sheriff’s deputies put out full contingents of officers about 20 or 30 yards away from the main gathering place. The nearby Oregon National Guard unit, fortified by other units, was at the ready, but not visible.
What became known as “The Stand at the Headgates” was forming. Again, the prayers and speeches. A leader of the essentially leaderless group talked about the plan to go over the fence. “This is entirely voluntary. Please remain calm. If you are going over, take no weapons with you. Leave even your pocketknives here on this table.”
This produced an interruption. “Whoever heard of a farmer without his pocketknife?” someone yelled to delighted laughter, breaking the tension.
The ladder went up and over the fence. The first man slowly climbed up and … went over to the inside. A cheer rose! The crowd surged. The police tightened their grips on their nightsticks. Another man went up and over. Then a woman. Another cheer! Soon the interior was full of people, dancing around. It was a glorious night, but the headgate remained closed.
Meanwhile, others were in continuous meetings and talks with Bush Administration people. Congress found money to pay for damages from dying crops. The action moved back to board rooms, court rooms, hearing rooms. The damage was done, but there seemed to be hope for the future. Farmers had made their point.
And then the unthinkable happened. 9/11/01. The World Trade Towers, the Pentagon and a lonely field in Pennsylvania became the scenes of unimaginable horror. In Klamath Falls, the tent at the headgates went away. The food tables and stores and stoves went away.
Ten years later, the chain link fence is still there. Sheriff Evinger is still in office. Farmers got water for several years, when bureaucrats suddenly discovered there was enough water for fish and food. The fight goes on. Happy Mother’s Day.
For a more complete version of this story by another eyewitness, Jeff Head, see The Stand at Klamath Falls.