Steve and Nancy Kandra harvested 0.7 ton per acre from their Merrill, OR, alfalfa fields this year, then watched the stands wither in the summer sun.

They're one of 1,400 farm families in California and Oregon who fell victim to a water-use agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The families watched in horror last April as the two agencies grappled in court over water supplies in Upper Klamath Lake, the cornerstone of the Klamath Irrigation Project. The bureau said it needed to keep lake levels high to protect shortnose and Lost River suckers. NMFS demanded that the bureau send water down the Klamath River to enhance spawning habitat for threatened coho salmon.

Their compromise agreement left the farmers — and 200,000 acres of irrigated hay, pasture and row crops — high and dry.

“We'll have to settle for about one-tenth of our usual crop on the Oregon side of the border this year,” says Steve Kandra. South of the California line, near Tulelake, the Kandras gained access to a tenant's well that allowed them to irrigate 240 acres of alfalfa and keep a foothold in the hay business.

Prices for Klamath Basin hay were up 10-30% at the end of first cutting — hardly a windfall for growers facing dismal yields. In fact, Kandra fears that a price increase for his hay broker, coupled with a short supply, might lead to a loss of customers. That could crimp future sales when irrigation water is turned back on.

Desperate for water, farmers and state agencies pockmarked the basin with emergency wells. Meanwhile, hydrologists scrambled for clues about the sustainability of the local groundwater supply, which is pocketed among fissures and fractures of volcanic rock. Even where drillers strike water, there's the threat of a 10-to-20-fold increase in pumping costs when irrigators renegotiate their power contract in 2006.

“The bottom line is that this pumping could provide short-term relief,” says Oregon State University extension agent Rod Todd in Klamath Falls, OR. “But it could end up being the straw that broke the camel's back as far as whether it will fit for anything but the highest-value row crops.”

The future looks bleak. Biologists predict that the Klamath Basin is likely to face similar water cutoffs six years in every 10. With odds like that, farmers are already finding it hard to access capital. There would be little collateral with which they could secure loans, anyway — basin land is nearly valueless except for certain parcels targeted for habitat restoration programs.

As a result, infrastructure is eroding as quickly as soil on Klamath's bare fields. Many growers expect at least half of the basin's farm families to pack up and leave. The local farm labor pool has already scattered in search of greener pastures. And farm-service businesses — seed and chemical dealers, equipment companies and custom applicators — are on the verge of collapse.

A midsummer decision to release a 20-day supply of water drew howls from environmentalists and groans from beleaguered farmers whose crops were already dead. Meanwhile, federal lawmakers were putting the finishing touches on a $20 million aid package. But it was too little, too late to save the 2001 season or inspire much confidence in the future.

The Klamath Basin case has raised serious issues about the nature of water rights and private property, notes Todd, who encourages every grower to understand his or her water rights and stand ready to defend them in court. He fears that the same scenario could play out anywhere an endangered species could be found and a regulatory agency could put its hands on a headgate.

Kandra recommends that growers everywhere start working now to prevent Klamath-style shutdowns closer to home.

“You'd better have communications with local politicians and your representatives in Washington, D.C.,” he warns. “Make them accountable.”