Two hundred and fifty miles upstream, at two in the morning, the alarm blared on the humidity meter on the Formica snack table in Steve Kandra's RV, and Kandra slid out of his berth and into his boots and climbed aboard the John Deere tractor awaiting him in his pitch-dark alfalfa field, a field irrigated by the same Klamath waters that Thomas Willson fishes. Kandra had mowed the alfalfa several days before; tonight he would bale it while the cut crop was safe from the parching daytime heat and before the morning dew turned everything too wet. Farming by ideal conditions meant living on the wrong side of adage: Kandra makes hay till the sun shines.
As drought years have become more problematic in the Klamath region, the competing water needs for Thomas Willson's fish and for Steve Kandra's fields have aggravated the rivalry between the Indian tribes living near the northern California coast and the irrigating farmers upstream along Oregon's arid southern border. The trouble, as farmers see it, came to a boiling point in 1997. That's the year coho salmon were accorded federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, which would entitle them to minimum flows of water. In 2001 tensions came to a dramatic head when the federal government shut off irrigation water to some 1,400 Klamath Reclamation Project farmers, including Kandra. The families felt singled out—"Farmers aren't used to being vilified," Kandra notes—and some responded with civil disobedience. They partially opened the irrigation canals' headgates in defiance of federal marshals and queued up for a symbolic bucket brigade through the streets of Klamath Falls, Oregon.
That summer the upper basin was a dry Dust Bowl flashback to The Grapes of Wrath. But by the following spring, reportedly thanks to Vice President Dick Cheney's behind-the-scenes intervention, the situation had reversed. In March 2002, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton flew to Klamath Falls to open the valve into the main diversion canal and assure farmers they would have the water they needed. Matter settled.
Then came the sequel.