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Give and Take?

We seem to be losing all sense of honor in dealings with our fellow citizens.
And the saddest part of all is that
the federal government is leading the way, showing us how it’s done.

By Mike Connelly
I had a guy a while back who owed me money for some hay. I had known him for a long time, and I let him slide for quite a while. But there came a time when I felt like I’d better call him on it.

Each time I would confront him he would have a new story about how it wasn’t his fault because he had so many other bills he had to pay. “Be a pal,” he’d say, “and let me get some of these other people off my back, and I swear I’ll make it up to you once I get caught up.” I knew his situation was difficult, so I cut him slack. But deep down I knew it wasn’t doing either one of us any good, and that it was putting a strain on our relationship.

We eventually got pretty angry with each other, and finally he said, “I don’t know what to say. I just owe too many people. I don’t know how I got into this mess, but I’m in it. I don’t have your money, and I can’t say when I will. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.” I told him to forget about the debt, but to not ever ask me for credit again. We haven’t talked to each other since.

I keep thinking about this guy as I listen to Department of Interior (DOI) officials as they explain why they have to take water from the Lost River to make up for shortfalls in the Klamath River watershed. They mention over and over again their “contractual obligations” to downstream interests, and when we remind them of their contractual obligations to irrigators, they tell us that we are just not at the top of their list.
Anna and Reno Connelly enjoy the ranch on a four-wheeler. Their father Mike, shown at top, has become disenchanted with collaborations with the federal government. The feds say there has to be “give and take” but Mike says, “Apparently that means irrigators give and the federal government takes.”
But the DOI pushes it even further than my ex-friend did. They argue that their “perpetual contract” to deliver irrigation water is actually just a “perpetual contract for annual deliveries.” (In other words, “We promise to honor our obligation forever, on the condition that we can stop honoring it at any time.”)

At first we thought they were just going to try and revive an obsolete water right to make deliveries to Tulelake irrigators, after they cut those irrigators off from Klamath Lake. But now they are just coming right out and saying, in effect, this is federal water, and we will do with it as we darn well please–even if that means draining critical habitat for one of the only thriving populations of endangered sucker fish in the basin, pumping it over into an entirely different watershed (which in turn has water pumped from it into the Central Valley of California, which in turn has water pumped from it into the Los
Angeles basin). They’ll do this even if it means making a mockery of their own science by claiming that draining Clear Lake will be good for endangered species after arguing the exact opposite back in 1992, when they shut down family farms in Langell Valley to keep the lake level high.

The worst part of all this is the explicitly stated assumption that it is irrigators who got us into this mess in the first place, and that it is time for us to pay up. We are told that there has to be “give and take.” Apparently what that means is that irrigators give and the federal government takes. We have gone out of our way to work with the DOI on water conservation. Just this year Horsefly Irrigation District (HID) split the cost of an $80,000 piping project with the Bureau of Reclamation, and Langell Valley Irrigation District, like most of the districts in the basin, has spent the last year or so working with the Bureau to develop a water conservation plan.

Basinwide, irrigators have supported the idling of thousands of acres of prime farmland, and spent countless volunteer hours working with various stakeholders to find environmentally sound responses to our mutual challenges. Our reward for going to these lengths amounts to spit in our face, with a virtual guarantee that our farms will be shut down for lack of water in the next couple of years.

I think of my ex-friend again, and wonder what I would have done if he had come to me and said, “You know that obligation I promised to make good on? Well, I’m not going to pay it because my other debtors have bigger thugs collecting for them. And hey, it wasn’t my fault you believed I’d make good. Besides, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Heck, we already know you’d just squander it anyway.”

If it’s true that this country is going to hell in a handbasket, I’d say it’s because we are losing all sense of honor in our dealings with our fellow citizens. And the saddest part of all this is that the federal government is leading the way, showing us how it’s done, acting as if honor is something this nation has outgrown. Over the last century the DOI, through the Bureau of Reclamation, has written a bunch of checks that it will never be able to cash. Now they’re claiming bankruptcy, and blaming their creditors for the debt.

I have a son who starts school this year. Like many parents, I have regrets about the amount of time I have spent away from him in these early years. While he has been growing up I have spent most of my non-farm time going to meetings, trying to work with the various tentacles of the DOI, trying to persuade my neighbors that it’s in everyone’s interest if we reach out to the agencies, and try and find workable solutions. But recent events have forced me to admit that Wendell Wood was right when he said that “collaborating” with the federal government is “a monumental waste of time.”

In fact it has been worse than a waste. The time I have spent away from my children has not helped secure their future on this piece of land. It very likely has helped to erase it. For the sake of my kids, I’m not going to waste another minute.

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