What'll Next Armed Wingnut Standoff Be About? How About 'Water'?
A bunch of rightwing militia types in Oregon are looking to get a nice confrontation going with the feds over water rights during a massive drought, because apparently the Republic needs another crisis about now. In May, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would be cutting off irrigation water from reservoirs in the Klamath Basin, near the Oregon-California border, because drawing down the reservoirs any further would violate the Endangered Species Act, by threatening two species of little fish you've never heard of.
Naturally enough, some wingnuts who don't think there's any such thing as "federal land" in the first place set up camp on some property they'd purchased in April, right next to the headgates of a canal that leads to a network of irrigation canals and ditches. They're now threatening to open up the gates themselves for the good of the farmers, although a local association of water users said no thank you to the offer of illegal "help."
Oh, yes, and the wannabe lake-drainers are affiliated with the "People's Rights Network," the anti-government group formed by Ammon Bundy during last year's protests in favor of spreading the coronavirus as widely as possible, because government can't tell Americans what to put on their faces. The two dudes leading the protest, Grant Knoll and Dan Neilsen, were also responsible for similar illegal releases of water from the water project back in 2001.
In late May, Nielsen explained to Jefferson Public Radio that he and Knoll bought the land in Klamath Falls next to the canal so the feds can't run them off it. And as with any real estate, the main selling point was location, location, location:
"The only thing separating us from the headgates is a chain link fence," Nielsen said, adding, "It's good access, all right."
The public radio reporter didn't note whether Nielsen literally elbowed her in the ribs while saying that, though he did add, "We're gonna do what we gotta do."
By last Monday, Knoll was ready to get a bit more specific, telling Jefferson Public Radio, "I'm planning on getting DC's attention. [...] We're going to turn on the water and have a standoff."
If they do, this would be the second time they've led a mob bent on taking water from the reservoirs that they consider theirs.
In 2001, after most irrigation water was cut off to protect endangered fish, thousands of demonstrators formed a symbolic "bucket brigade," passing buckets of water from Lake Ewauna and emptying them into the "A" Canal that runs through Klamath Falls. Over the course of several days in early July 2001, protesters cut and climbed the fence to the headgates and three times forced open the gates to allow water into the canal. Federal marshals showed up 10 days later and didn't leave until Sept. 11.
That confrontation only petered out after the 9/11 attacks took away all the media attention from a little water-rights domestic terrorism, and farmers agreed to knock it off.
Knoll and Nielsen have also set up a big striped tent on their property, calling it a "water crisis info center" and displaying signs along an adjoining road reading "Tell Pharaoh let our water feed the Earth" and "Ammon Bundy coming soon." Nielsen told the radio station he's in regular contact with Bundy, although as of yet, they don't seem to have announced any plans for Bundy's arrival. Bundy, who now lives in Idaho, is allegedly running for governor, so it's unclear how he plans to balance a busy campaign schedule and another armed standoff.
At a May 27 meeting, Knoll told a crowd of about 100 people that the best way to get the water illegally flowing would be
for the local irrigation district — on whose board he sits — to do it, in defiance of the Bureau of Reclamation. But he said his fellow board members seemed unwilling to take that step.
"The next way to open it is you know what," Mr. Knoll told the crowd. "And that's where all the fun begins."
Your rightwing extremists no longer even pretend they care about obeying the law, because after all, they have the guns and God on their side.
The Guardian explains that keeping water in the reservoirs to protect the two endangered species of suckerfish will definitely involve difficult tradeoffs. But there is a legal system in place that determines where scarce water goes, and it doesn't actually involve guys with guns showing up and draining reservoirs because they say they can.
Endangered Coho Salmon will likely suffer from the lack of water, along with migrating birds later in the season whose refuges have dried up. But previous court decisions have determined that the interests of those upstream should take precedence, including the Klamath Tribes, for whom the suckerfish have a spiritual significance.
For all their insistence that they're only out to help out farmers in the area, local agricultural groups want nothing to do with Knoll and Nielsen. Ben DuVal, the president of the Klamath Water Users Association, called the provocateurs "idiots who have no business being here," and said they were only using the drought for "a soapbox to push their agenda."
For his part, Ammon Bundy doesn't worry about trivial things like the law or professional groups, or even keeping the peace. In an interview last week, he told the New York Times he's completely ready for some armed standoffing, and then some:
"Who cares if there is violence? At least something will be worked out," Mr. Bundy said in an interview, ridiculing those not prepared to fight for the nation's food supply. "'Oh, we don't want violence, we'll just starve to death.' Heaven forbid we talk about violence."
That would be a terrific sound bite for his campaign ads.
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