Klamath Falls, OR

Frustrations mount over water access in the Klamath Basin

Melanie Henshaw

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The drought-stricken Klamath Basin.Melanie Henshaw/NewsBreak

(KLAMATH FALLS, OR) After the U.S Bureau of Reclamation declined to release any water to farmers this year in an effort to protect endangered fish living in the basin, a right-wing fringe group affiliated with some farmers is threatening to illegally force open the head gates to the basin, allowing water to flow. Tribes in the region who rely on the Klamath's water for food, cultural and religious reasons pursue multiple legal battles in an effort to improve their conservation capabilities.

THE REGION

The Klamath Basin region, which straddles the Oregon-California border, is amid historic drought that experts say will lead to a record-breaking wildfire season this year. Local tribes and farmers rely on access to water from the depleted Klamath Project, which is responsible for irrigation allocations in the region.

The Klamath Project controls water allocation for the region, which includes the ancestral homelands of the Klamath, Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes as well as 240,000 acres of farmland.

The area has long suffered from drought and water shortages. The project aims to maintain a delicate balance in the battle for water access. However, the water the federal government promised to the region’s shareholders simply does not exist. Even when the drought is less severe than this year’s, there is still not enough water to satisfy all parties who rely on the basin for their needs.

THE STAKEHOLDERS

There are three groups who depend on the Klamath Basin for water.

The Klamath Tribe battles to protect two species of federally endangered, culturally sacred suckerfish, called the Koptu and the C’waam, which rely on sufficient water levels on Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River in order to spawn. For the Klamath, the fate of the suckerfish is tied to their survival as people.

Further downriver, in California, the Karuk and Yurok tribes need water released from the basin into the Klamath River to protect federally threatened Coho and Chinook salmon, sacred to the tribes, which they also depend on for sustenance.

Because of the low water flow, during this spring’s Coho salmon run in the Klamath River, which occurs in April and May, the Karuk tribes reported 90% of juvenile salmon died. A high concentration of c. Shasta bacteria, found in 97% of samples taken by the Karuk tribe, formed in the river due to the low water level. After the catastrophic fish kill, the tribe declared a state of emergency over climate change on June 1.

For the Karuk people, the depth of loss felt by the death of so many salmon is hard to quantify. Karuk and Yurok tribal member Ryan Reed says, “We lost our relatives… It becomes much broader than an ecological or climatic issue, and not many non-Indigenous can understand that.”

Agriculturists who tend to the 1,200 farms in the Klamath Project region rely on water allotments from the basin to irrigate their crops.

In years with less severe drought, allocations remain a contentious topic, as farmers insist their water rights supersede those of the tribes. That happened despite a 2020 Supreme Court decision ruling against the Klamath Water Users Association, a group representing farmers, in a lawsuit about water rights filed in 2001.

As affirmed in a 2013 court ruling, the Klamath Tribe serves as the senior water rights holders in the Klamath Basin. As such, their water needs are considered first and supersede the needs of other stakeholders in the basin.

The Klamath Tribe exercised its seniority twice since the ruling, once in 2018 and again this year, with the aim of protecting their sacred suckerfish.

This effectively stops the release of water from the basin, preventing the access that the lower Klamath tribes and farmers desire.

ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

On April 14, as the implications of the year’s impending drought became clear, the United States Bureau of Reclamation issued its decision regarding the water allocations for the Klamath Project.

In order to remain in compliance with obligations under the Endangered Species Act to protect the Klamath Tribe’s sacred suckerfish, the Bureau of Reclamation initially announced that only 33,000 acre-feet of water would be released from the basin. The region typically uses 300,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of water, and even greater amounts during a drought.

After an unprecedentedly dry April, the USBR revised its decision, and announced no water would be released to farmers for the year. Farming will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for many as a result.

Additionally, in a blow to Coho and Chinook salmon conservation efforts, no flushing flows would be released to mitigate deadly bacteria that decimate juvenile salmon populations. A flushing flow is a strategic release of water to deter accumulation of harmful bacteria in the river.

The decision aims to maintain the minimum levels of water necessary to allow the C’waam and Koptu to survive.

"The Klamath River, once the third largest producer of Salmon in the US has always had C. shasta," Grant Johnson, water quality program manager for the Karuk Tribe, says. "It is the alterations to the river and its management that have had the unintended consequence of creating these devastating C. shasta outbreaks."

The federal government’s obligations under the Endangered Species Act supersede any competing claims to water, hence the ruling in favor of protection for the suckerfish.

But this year’s drought is so severe that it still may not be enough to protect the endangered suckerfish.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to restrict water released from the basin caused swift backlash from farmers and immediate consequences for threatened salmon.

The Karuk and Yurok are currently petitioning the state and federal government to list the Coho salmon as federally endangered, rather than just threatened, which affords the species further protections.

STAND-OFF BREWING

The Bureau of Reclamation’s decision immediately angered farmers, who failed in their previous legal efforts to gain access to more water.

In January, farmers Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll purchased a plot of land directly adjacent to the A Canal, which controls the water for the region, with the intents of illegally forcing the head gates open to provide more water for farmers.

The farmers believe their claims should overrule the tribes’ rights to the water.

The farmers who purchased the plot are aligned with national group People’s Rights, founded by militant provocateur Ammon Bundy. The group has since set up a tent on the land, which they’ve deemed the Water Crisis Info Center, and adorned with right-wing signage and called for people supportive of their cause to join them in Klamath.

People’s Rights say their fight is not just for access to water in the Klamath Basin, but part of a broader battle against what they call “government overreach and tyranny.”

Bundy is best known for organizing an armed standoff with the federal government in Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016 over cattle grazing rights on federal lands. It’s currently unclear if Bundy plans to join the People’s Rights group in Southern Oregon, as he recently announced his plans to run for governor of Idaho, but has said he will visit Klamath if asked.

Speaking to Jefferson Public Radio Knoll said, “We’re going to turn on the water and have a standoff."

2001 WATER WARS

The brewing standoff in Klamath is reminiscent of the “water wars'' of 2001, in a similarly dry year in which farmers believed they deserved more water. After water was cut off to a majority of the farmland, farmers and militias protested, causing President George W. Bush to increase their water allocations in response to the protests.

But the water soon ran out, and farmers subsequently illegally forced open the headgates three times.

In 2002, the Bush administration neglected its legal obligations to tribes and provided farmers their full allocations of water.

This had disastrous effects on the Klamath River and resulted in an unprecedented fish kill, leading to the deaths of at least adult 34,000 fish. The banks of the Klamath were lined with dead fish. Low levels of water caused a proliferation of deadly bacteria that decimated the river’s population of steelhead, and spawned Chinook and Coho salmon.

"The 2002 adult fish kill was the result of low flows, warm water, a large fish run, and a massive outbreak of Ich and gill rot," says Johnson.

The pain of the 2002-2003 fish kill is fresh in the hearts and minds of lower Klamath tribes. The mass deaths of salmon this year affects the generations of salmon to come.

“We will feel the same effects as ‘02 in 2-3 years when they were supposed to come home. And that means our main source of food will be limited and threatened,” said Reed.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced its revised decision to hold back all water on May 13. Soon after, farmers in southern Oregon allegedly intimidated the Bureau of Reclamation employees into illegally opening the gates to allow more water for farmers by posting their personal information online. The Klamath Water Users Association denounced the behavior.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Taking a different angle to the situation, tribes are advocating for their water rights through litigating.

The Klamath, Yurok and Karuk tribes have all filed multiple, separate lawsuits against the federal government over water. The tribes are trying to secure protections for the multiple species of sacred fish and their ecosystems.

The tribes are also relying on advocacy efforts and raising awareness through social media. Klamath Tribe citizen Lofanitani Ainsea-Ball raises awareness through her TikTok account, where she posts dozens of videos about her tribe’s sacred fish and the battle to retain their water rights.

On May 22, the Klamath Tribes and their supporters held a rally in Chiloquin, Oregon advocating for protections for the suckerfish and rights for Indigenous peoples.

The Yurok and Karuk tribes were successful in court this week after the State of California accepted their petition to list slapping Chinook salmon as endangered, which grants further protections for the species.

Additionslly, the Yurok and Hoopa tribes are in an ongoing federal court battle trying to clarify and affirm their water rights.

“We, as Indigenous people of the Klamath basin, have been denied so much for so long,” Reed said.

An ideal solution, Reed says, starts with respect for Indigenous communities and knowledge. “We want land back. We need Indigenous and tribal community voices to be heard and understood, and a stable future for the salmon and all other aquatic and terrestrial species who depend on the river.”

According to Johnson, better management of the Klamath's resources is key to avoiding further fish kills and recovery for the salmon. He says, "The best prevention is letting the river act like a river, meaning removing dams, implementing natural flow variability, and taking a hard look at hatchery practices."

TRIBAL CONCERNS MOVING FORWARD

There is concern among the region’s tribes related to the potential harm caused by the farmers forcing the head gates open. According to the Rand Corporation, a research that studies public policy issues, extremists are better organized than in the past with greater reach and networking capabilities through social media and the internet.

Racism against Indigenous people has a long history in the region, and the People’s Rights camp is cause for concern to Reed.

“Specifically, concern for the people being brought in to support even though they don’t live in the basin and want to encourage violence and renegade actions because it supports their belief and perspective.”

It’s unclear when the farmers and People’s Rights group intend to make good on their threat to force open the head gates, or what would happen if they do.

“There’s a social divide between different cultures, which is leading to arrogance and colonial violence. Our voices have been suppressed for a long time now, so I think a real civics lesson needs to be taught and perspective needs to be interjected.” says Reed.

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Multimedia journalist passionate about covering issues regarding the environment and Indigenous rights, and food. Always searching for the next great meal.

Eugene, OR
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