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The Associated Press

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) — Klamath County commissioners refused demands Thursday that they enact an ordinance giving angry farmers legal cover for breaking into a federal irrigation project and diverting water from endangered fish to their parched fields.

About 75 people crowded into a meeting room with the commissioners, demanding an ordinance giving legal protection to anyone engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against the federal government to restore irrigation water to the Klamath Project. They offered a petition with 2,000 signatures supporting such an ordinance.

About 100 people cut open a gate in a chain link fence on Wednesday and cranked open one of the six headgates holding the waters of Upper Klamath Lake out of a main irrigation canal.

County sheriff’s deputies and city police watched, but did not attempt to stop them. The water ran for about four hours until Bureau of Reclamation personnel closed the headgate. It was the third time in a week that the desperate farmers have attempted to turn their irrigation water back on.

“It’s time to step up to the plate,” farmer and businessman Paul Arritola, who said he has lost $200,000 because of dried-up pasture, told the commission. “We’re saying our ranches are dying and we intend to do something about it. If we do end up in some civil disobedience, we expect you to be on our side.”

Commissioners countered that they have been working hard to restore the water, meeting with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Gov. John Kitzhaber. But Commissioner Al Switzer said the ordinance would be worthless. Efforts elsewhere to assert county authority over the federal government all been struck down by federal courts, he said.

“I know what you’re going through,” said Switzer, whose farm also depends on the Klamath Project for water. “We didn’t get anyone hurt this time, but they vandalized government property. I don’t think that is the message you want to send.”

Faced with severe drought and new findings by federal biologists on the water needs of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in Klamath River, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decided last April that it could not provide water for 90 percent of the 240,000 acres of ranches and farms served by the Klamath Project.

While other farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin are drawing water from wells and nonfederal irrigation systems, those depending on the Klamath Project have been forced to sell off cattle, let pastures turn brown, and give up contracts to grow potatoes for national processors.

Angry farmers now have opened the headgate three times in the past week in defiance of the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits federal agencies from doing anything to jeopardize the survival of protected species. Each time, the Bureau of Reclamation sent people in to close the headgate again.

Hung on the fence protecting the headgate on Thursday was a big hand-lettered banner reading, “Freedom? Open the gates now!!” Smaller signs saying “Save the land,” and “Share the water,” as well as dead bouquets of flowers also hung on the fence.

A representative of commercial fishermen who won a lawsuit forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for salmon in the Klamath River said he expects the federal government to bring the same level of law enforcement to the water fight as fishermen would face if they broke the law.

“If our boats had crossed the line into the Klamath Zone where they are forbidden from fishing, the Coast Guard would have been right there arresting folks,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the fishermen’s association. “I don’t see why we are not seeing similar arrests here.

“Mollycoddling of terrorists is the best way I can describe it.”

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