Western farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by two endangered fish species are placing their own survival into the hands of a rarely used Cabinet-level commission called the “God Squad.”
Nicknamed because of its power to override the Endangered Species Act, the Endangered Species Commission has heard only three appeals since Congress created it in 1978, and it stands as the last resort for California and Oregon farmers facing bankruptcy.
On behalf of the farmers, the Pacific Legal Foundation is petitioning the commission to convene and overrule the last-minute Clinton-era decision that cut off water to farmers in order to protect threatened sucker fish and salmon.
Farm fields are parched, and property values have plummeted since the spigot was turned off in April.
“The most endangered species in Klamath now is its people, the farmers who have been producing food for America’s dinner tables for decades,” said Anne Hayes, lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, an organization dedicated to Endangered Species Act reform.
The group called on state and federal officials to “urge the God Squad to resolve this catastrophe.”
One Bush administration official has signaled that the request to invoke the “God Squad” may be granted.
The commission last convened in 1991, under the senior President Bush, when the listing of the spotted owl eventually shut down many Northwest logging projects. The Klamath Valley, then dependent on the timber industry, took an economic hit before refocusing its economy on farming, which now faces extinction.
Meanwhile, frustrated farmers pried open the irrigation headgates three times last week in a desperate attempt to get water to their bone-dry fields, prompting the Bureau of Reclamation to ask federal marshals and the FBI for assistance.
The situation escalated Wednesday when farmers broke through a welded gate to release water as local law enforcement officials watched.
“The local police and sheriff were on hand, and they determined their mission was to protect the people who were there and that the property of the federal government was the federal government’s property, and they would have to deal with it,” said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.
“We have requested some guidance and potential assistance to investigate the July Fourth incident and to determine the best way to secure these gates so we don’t have another situation where they are open,” Mr. McCracken said.
Protesters, however, vow to continue reopening the headgates.
“It’s our water. It was given to us by the government, then we paid for it, worked for it. We have the right to get it back,” said one protester, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, said he is briefed daily on the situation in his home district and is concerned about the effects of an increased show of federal law enforcement officials.
“We don’t need for the situation to escalate to the point of violence,” Mr. Walden said. “All of us are urging calm and an understanding of the extraordinary frustration these people feel. Generations of work [are] literally blowing away because of this decision.”
The dry valley suffered record-high temperatures last week of more than 100 degrees, which may have added to the farmers’ impatience for water.
“To not get the water they need is a Kevorkian-like act on behalf of the government,” Mr. Walden said, referring to the euthanasia advocate who was convicted of helping people commit suicide.
Farmers failed to get a federal injunction to restore their water and say intervention by the “God Squad” is their only hope.
The commission has six administration officials under the chairmanship of the Interior secretary. Besides Interior, the panel includes the secretaries of the Army and Agriculture, administrators of the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Also on the panel are representatives designated by the governors of the affected states and approved by the president.
Among findings the commission must make to grant an exemption to the Endangered Species Act is “no reasonable and prudent alternative” to the conservation project.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton is aware the petition has been filed but has not read it, a department spokeswoman said.
Mrs. Norton has 20 days to determine whether the Bureau of Reclamation carried out its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act in good faith. After the initial review, a public hearing must be held and a report issued within 140 days, with a decision from the full committee due within another 30 days.
The cumbersome time periods won’t help the farmers in the short term, but without intervention from the ‘God Squad,‘“these people are toast,” Mr. Walden said.