The Ugly, Extremist-Fueled Water Wars Brewing in the West

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos via Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos via Getty

As an historic drought was intensifying in the Southwest late last month, members of a far-right chat group about Arizona state politics got to talking about similar water shortages in Oregon and northern California. There, farmers were struggling with dry fields and strict water limits. The crisis, members of the Arizona group chat falsely claimed, amounted to a deliberate plot by “Jews” to “starve Americans by cutting off the water supply.”

The claim was vile, untrue, and nonetheless quickly spread across multiple popular channels on the messaging platform Telegram. It also wildly mischaracterized a genuine, complicated water emergency in the West—one experts fear might give rise to violent clashes.

Much of the western United States is experiencing what meteorologists describe as an “exceptional drought.” With record-high temperatures and record-low water levels in parts of the country, among other causes, the drought is one devastating symptom of worsening climate change. The shortages have left some communities, like Oregon farmers and Californian fishers, competing for scarce water.

Stoking the conflict are anonymous nativist shit-posters, doomsday websites that conveniently sell apocalypse preparation gear, and more established far-right figures threatening to open a river’s headgates by force.

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The Arizona Telegram chat group where members falsely accused Jewish people of orchestrating the drought has discussed the emerging crisis with growing urgency in recent weeks. They aren’t the only ones feeling the heat: Across the state, farmers and ranchers are facing the difficult task of raising their crops and livestock on the combined three inches of water that have fallen over the past 15 months.

But in certain fringe groups, the drought talk has taken a particularly ugly turn. Another Arizona-based Telegram channel (this one a conspiratorial anti-immigrant group) recently boasted of finding water bottles in the desert. Some aid groups leave water near the U.S.-Mexico border to reduce heat-related deaths among the desperate. But the Telegram group accused migrants of being “child predators” and said the water was better spent on plants. It boasted of emptying the bottles onto “our Desert vegetation experiencing a severe drought.”

“Those repeating the Lie that Migrants are dying because there is no water” were welcome to face off with the group’s dog, a member of the group posted on Telegram. “He has a way of explaining himself that delivers the message clearly.”

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As parts of the West hit their boiling points this week (Palm Springs, CA, hit a record 123 degrees), conspiratorial drought coverage reached the headlines of popular fringe websites. On Monday, news of the drought blanketed the homepage of conspiracy site Natural News, which claimed in the title of a widely disseminated article that “WATER WARS [are] about to go kinetic in America as farmers targeted by ‘terrorist’ state governments that are [sic] deliberately collapsing civilization.”

The article, which people shared on the far-right Arizona Telegram channel, as well as similar circles, immediately dismissed the idea that “drought” was behind the water shortages. Instead, the article falsely alleged, “left-wing governments” were “targeting humanity with multiple vectors of genocide” “to achieve global depopulation via planned extermination.” Completing a sort of trifecta of far-right fears, the plan was also said to involve killing people with vaccines and starting a “race war” by letting schools teach certain race-related topics.

Fortunately for Natural News readers, the site also sells prepper gear for off-the-grid survival and tagged the story with various labels like “food collapse,” “starvation,” and “food crops.” In multiple far-right Telegrams, people shared the Natural News article with messages about subsistence farming.

“Focus on high calorie foods also like potatoes,” wrote one Arizona Telegrammer who agreed with the post about “Jews” orchestrating droughts. (They are not.) In a far-right Oregon-based Telegram group, a person shared the article with an appeal for friends to start farming their own food to avoid “genocidal governments.” (The person immediately went on to share anti-vaccination posts from a prominent QAnon influencer who promotes antisemitic and flat Earth conspiracy theories.)

The Natural News story drew on a long trail of misinformation to paint a grotesque picture of another, very real nightmare. It cited another fringe survivalist blog, which in turn cited a report by the Russia-backed outlet RT, which quoted two associates of a far-right group in its coverage of a disastrous ongoing water shortage in the Klamath River Basin.

The Klamath River, a vital water source for Oregon and northern California communities, is currently experiencing exceptional drought, reducing its flow to a trickle. The shortage comes as a threat to indigenous fishers in California, where mass death of juvenile salmon represents “an absolute worst-case scenario,” the vice-chair of a California tribe told High Country News last month. Meanwhile, upriver, Oregon farmers are without adequate water to irrigate their crops. Complicating matters even further, an Oregon tribe with senior water rights to the Upper Klamath Lake requires the drought-stricken body of water to remain above minimum levels, in order to protect the lake’s already endangered fish.

Although it can’t summon the rain, the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency, can allocate the remaining water. But amid the ongoing drought, the agency shut off water allocations altogether, for the first time in the region’s history.

As farmers scramble, a far-right group has stepped into the fray. The People’s Rights network, an organization that has held mask-burnings and demonstrations at local officials’ homes over the past year, has set up camp alongside the river’s headgates on land purchased by two farmers associated with the group. Both farmers, neither of whom could be reached for comment, have spoken of potentially storming the headgates and unleashing the water reserves.

“If they don’t budge… I think we’re just going to end up taking it,” one of the farmers told RT.

In an interview with Jefferson Public Radio, another People’s Rights-associated farmer threatened a standoff with federal agents. “I’m planning on getting D.C.’s attention,” he said. “We’re going to turn on the water and have a standoff.”

A spokesperson for the Oregon People’s Rights chapter that is organizing events at the encampment said the group stands by that message and the potential of a standoff—albeit, somehow, nonviolently.

“No one here would ever have [used] the word Storm. We want the headgates open, yes,” she told The Daily Beast via text message, suggesting the group might hold a bucket brigade to manually transfer water to farms from the river’s canal. “We would never use violence or damage anything to get the water that belongs to the irrigators.”

Domain names for the People’s Rights network were registered in 2019, web records show, but the group publicly launched in early 2020, in loud opposition to anti-COVID-19 measures. The group’s leader, Ammon Bundy, gained fame in two armed standoffs against federal agents over public land disputes in 2014 and 2016, the first alongside his father Cliven. Bundy, who has not appeared at the Klamath River encampment, recently announced a bid for governor of Idaho. His campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.

In an interview with The New York Times this month, Bundy suggested that people should be willing to use force to obtain the water. “Who cares if there is violence? At least something will be worked out,” he told the paper, mocking people who shied away from such measures. “‘Oh, we don’t want violence, we’ll just starve to death.’ Heaven forbid we talk about violence.”

Presented with Bundy’s quote, the People’s Rights spokesperson from Oregon expressed doubt about its accuracy. “I don’t like [the] word violence,” she said. “I don’t know for sure if that’s what he said.”

Observers of the People’s Rights network said its new focus on the Klamath represented a post-COVID-19 pivot to a more squarely Bundy-style land dispute.

“They built this base around COVID-19 restrictions,” Chuck Tanner, research director at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a left-leaning group, told The Daily Beast. “They translated this into a property rights framework in the Klamath Basin, one that ignores the property rights of tribes.”

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Stephen Piggott, a program analyst with the Western States Center, another left-leaning group, highlighted a series of meetings the group has held over the water crisis.

“They are hosting all sorts of speakers that come on on a weekly basis to essentially keep the drum beating and keep the energy up in terms of pushing for a potential standoff with the federal government over this issue,” Piggott told The Daily Beast.

Some of those listed speakers include elected officials, like the mayors of nearby towns Malin and Merrill. (Neither mayor returned requests for comment.) Malin’s police chief, Ron Broussard, was also advertised as a speaker at a June 3 event but told The Daily Beast he ultimately did not attend the event because he wanted to remain neutral.

“I don’t know what they’re doing or what they’re going to do because I don’t have any intel,” Broussard said.

One of the more eyebrow-raising speakers, who appeared at a meeting last week, was a sometimes-writer for a white nationalist publication, as Mother Jones reported. Oregon’s KTVL first noted that the speaker went on a conspiratorial tangent about a plan to return Donald Trump to the presidency, as well as a plan to return to office an Oregon lawmaker who was recently expelled for his role in allowing rioters into the state capitol in December.

The current tensions in the Klamath Basin are not the first of their kind. Twenty years ago, drought conditions sent some farmers to the brink of standoff with the government. This year’s demonstrations might not have as much support as they did in 2001, Piggott noted. But worsening climate change also means the strong possibility of future droughts, and future clashes.

People’s Rights built its momentum protesting anti-COVID-19 measures, which are now ending. Organizing around water rights might be the new rallying cry for a well-organized operation that claims foot soldiers across America.

“I think these folks see the climate situation as the latest opportunity to engage in this type of confrontation,” Piggott said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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