Tensions escalate in Klamath Falls as southern Oregon water crisis deepens
Jun 03, 2021
By Kale Williams | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Driving into Klamath Falls from the north, it’s not immediately apparent that southern Oregon is in the grip of a severe drought.
As Oregon 97 drops out of the Cascades, the highway skirts the eastern edge of Upper Klamath Lake, the largest body of freshwater in the state. Geese honk and pelicans dunk their oversized bills into the blue water as the snow-capped peaks of Mount McLoughlin and Mount Shasta poke out of the high desert basin.
But this part of southern Oregon is in the midst of a contentious water crisis, with more than 90% of Klamath County in “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. For more than 100 years, the Bureau of Reclamation has released water from the lake for farmers to irrigate crops, for Native tribes to fish and, more recently, to protect endangered species.
But this year, with the amount of water flowing into it from rivers and streams drastically reduced, the bureau announced last month that it wouldn’t release any water for farmers or tribes or wildlife, all of whom depend on it.
“This year’s drought conditions are bringing unprecedented hardship to the communities of the Klamath Basin,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees irrigation on farms in an area known as the Klamath Project. “We have closely monitored the water conditions in the area and the unfortunate deterioration of the forecasted hydrology. This has resulted in the historic consequence of not being able to operate a majority of the Klamath Project this year.”
Water is typically released through a series of headgates into the “A” canal, located on the southern shore of Upper Klamath Lake in Klamath Falls. Earlier this year, Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen, farmers who own land within the Klamath Project bought property directly adjacent to the canal and are threatening to breach the headgates themselves.
The farmers have ties to Ammon Bundy, an anti-government activist best known for leading an armed standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge five years ago.
The move to breach the headgates would not be without precedent, with farmers staging a similar revolt against the Bureau of Reclamation two decades ago. Such actions also aren’t limited to southern Oregon as many parts of the arid west face similar water shortages and ensuing tensions.
But fights over water in the Klamath Basin extend back more than a century and, with climate change expected to continue eating into the region’s water supply in decades to come, the need for the diminishing resource is only expected to grow more intense.
A CRISIS 100 YEARS IN THE MAKING
The Klamath Basin and the river that flows from it is a bit of a geographic peculiarity. With its headwaters in the high desert of southern Oregon, the lake is primarily fed by Cascade snowpack and the river flows south through the mountains of the forested Pacific coast in California.
Before the Klamath Basin was inhabited by white people, it was home to vast marshes and wetlands full of salmon, trout and steelhead that provided an important waypoint for millions of migratory birds. The watershed was also home to numerous tribes, including the Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin-Paiute, Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk people, many of whom depended on fish stocks in the lake and seasonal salmon runs on the river.
An aerial view of Upper Klamath Lake, north of Klamath Falls, on June 2, 2021.
In 1864, the Klamath people signed a treaty with the federal government, giving up roughly 22 million acres in exchange for the right to hunt, fish, gather food and retain water rights on the 1.5 million acres that would remain in their control. Similar treaties were entered into by many of the other tribes in the watershed with promises they would be provided adequate access to water to sustain their way of life in perpetuity.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the federal government began bisecting the basin with dikes and levies so the marshes could be drained and converted into farmland. The Klamath Project was created in 1906, delivering the first waters through the “A” canal. Today, the project delivers irrigation water to some 240,000 acres of farmland used to grow alfalfa, grass seed and potatoes, among other crops.
At least in good years.
In the late 1980s, two species of suckerfish native to Upper Klamath Lake, known as C’waam and Koptu in the Klamath tribes language, were listed under the Endangered Species Act, which designated minimum lake levels to help protect the fish. A few years later, coho salmon, which spawn downstream and are vital to the subsistence of the Yurok and Karuk tribes, were also listed under the Endangered Species Act. Without adequate water flow down the river, temperatures rise and parasites, which can kill both juvenile and adult salmon, flourish.
Challenges faced at the headgates in Klamath Falls reverberate up and down the watershed.
Releasing water in drought years can put the suckerfish population in the lake in jeopardy. Failing to release water – aside from the concerns of the farmers who rely on it – can further endanger the declining salmon runs and dry out two wildlife refuges that provide an important stopover point for millions of migratory birds.
Already this year, the Yurok people have seen what Frankie Myers, the tribe’s vice chairman, called a “worst-case scenario” for salmon on their stretch of the river.
“Right now, the Klamath River is full of dead and dying fish on the Yurok Reservation,” Myers said in a statement, noting that 97% of the juvenile fish captured between the Shasta River and Scott River stretch of the Klamath were infected with Ceratonova shasta , a parasite that thrives in warmer water. “This disease will kill most of the baby salmon in the Klamath, which will impact fish runs for many years to come.”
Residents of the Yurok reservation in northern California have seen scores of juvenile salmon infected with lethal parasites caused by low water flows in the Klamath River this year.
The tribe has canceled its commercial fishery for the fifth time this year as forecast returns for adult salmon continue to decline. On the Yurok reservation, where the median yearly income is around $11,000, many families rely on the salmon for their income.
“What Klamath Basin communities are facing right now is the definition of a disaster. It is also the new normal,” Myers said. “We owe it to future generations to never let another juvenile fish kill like this happen again. We need to act now before it is too late for the Klamath salmon.”
With so many competing interests and such a finite resource, the question of who gets access to the water of the Klamath Basin has been a source of contention for decades.
An adjudication process in Oregon that began in the mid-1970s handed down a decision in 2013, essentially giving those who were in the basin first the most rights to the water. That put the Klamath tribes, who have called the basin home for thousands of years, first in line, with farmers following in order of who has the earliest claims to the water.
Brad Parrish, a water rights specialist for the Klamath tribes, said the tribes had asserted their right earlier this year but that lake levels still fell below the levels mandated to protect the endangered suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake.
“There just isn’t enough water to go around. There’s not enough to make any one entity whole,” Parrish said. “Our biggest concern right now is the water quality in the lake. Whether (the fish) will have access to cold water later in the year.”
Knoll and Nielsen, the farmers who recently bought land next to the canal, said they recognize the Klamath tribes have the senior-most rights in the basin. But Knoll said that other tribes farther downstream didn’t take part in the adjudication process and so shouldn’t be able to make claims on the water needed by irrigators in the project area.
Amy Cordalis, legal counsel for the California-based Yurok and a tribal member herself who grew up on the reservation, said the tribe didn’t participate in the adjudication process because Oregon doesn’t have jurisdiction over the tribe’s water rights. Those rights, which guaranteed the Yurok enough water to sustain their fisheries and cultural practices, were granted to the Yurok in an 1855 executive order that established the tribe’s reservation in northern California, she said.
“That water right can be satisfied from any source available,” she said. “The claims from the irrigators completely write out the Yurok.”
Yurok tribal lawyer leads charge
Farmers like Knoll and Nielsen and various tribes have sued over their water rights and, though both sides have won in some cases and lost in others, litigation remains in the appeals process.
The situation at the headgates is reminiscent of the last severe water crisis 20 years prior.
In 2001, water shortages also forced the Bureau of Reclamation to shut off the headgates. In that case, a group of farmers, including Knoll and Nielsen, forced their way in and opened the gates themselves. Local law enforcement agencies did not intervene and the situation was only resolved when federal authorities secured the headgates and the bureau agreed to release a limited amount of water.
That same area where farmers breached the gates in 2001 is where Nielsen and Knoll purchased their land earlier this year. Nielsen called the land an “investment” and said the pair bought it “to be close to the enemy,” by which he means the Bureau of Reclamation.
A large red-and-white tent now sits just outside a barbed-wire fence encircling the headgates. The tent, which is adorned with signs lamenting the lack of water for irrigation alongside “don’t tread on me flags” and an oversized banner reading “we the people,” has been dubbed the Water Crisis Info Center and plays host to weekly gatherings of up to 100 people, Knoll said.
An aerial view of the headgates of the “A” canal that’s fed by the Upper Klamath Lake on June 1, 2021. Farmers Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen have set up a large tent on land they purchased adjacent to the headgates. The men, who also own land within the Klamath Project and have ties to Ammon Bundy, have threatened to breach the headgates if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation does not release water into the canal.
Both Nielsen and Knoll knew Bundy before the recent water crisis and they say he has offered support to their cause. Bundy’s connection to the Klamath Falls situation was first reported by Jefferson Public Radio.
From his perspective, Knoll said he sees the federal government’s actions this spring as a direct infringement on his water rights and he is involved in some of the lawsuits that are still under appeal.
But neither Knoll or Nielsen will rule out forcing the gates open, like they did in 2001. However, they say there are ways to avert a showdown with the federal government. The bureau could release the water on its own accord, Knoll said, which appears unlikely. Or, he said, the Secretary of the Interior could also authorize the purchase of water under the Endangered Species Act, or a judge could issue a declaratory judgment in their favor.
Short of that, however, the situation appears to be headed toward a confrontation.
“If the court doesn’t resolve this, standoff coming,” Knoll said in a text message to The Oregonian/OregonLive Wednesday morning, though he declined to say when the farmers would make their move.
SEARCHING FOR A LASTING SOLUTION
Nearly everyone – the farmers, the tribes, environmentalists – agrees that the water allocation system in the Klamath Basin is broken. There are too many groups who need access to a resource that is in limited supply in the best of years and, in years like this, is inaccessible to all.
Bill Jaeger, an applied economics professor at Oregon State University who has studied the situation in the Klamath Basin for more than 20 years, said there are some potential solutions, but all of them come with downsides for one group or another.
He has worked on studies looking at how water rights could be traded on a marketplace, essentially moving water from low-value farmland to places where higher value crops could be grown. That kind of scheme could lessen the economic impact of severe drought years, he said. But those types of collaborative solutions are difficult to implement, especially when the region is in the midst of a crisis.
Shallow, stagnant water lines the “A” canal in Klamath Falls, about a mile southeast of the headgate that controls water flow from Upper Klamath Lake on June 1, 2021
Parrish, the water rights specialist for the Klamath tribes, said there could be ways to create incentives for farmers to plant less water-intensive crops or perhaps shrink the footprint of irrigated acres. One thing not likely to help, he said, would be a confrontation with federal authorities.
“My biggest worry is the tent down there,” Parrish said. “(A standoff) is not going to solve any of the long-term problems. It’s going to be up to this community to sit down and solve these problems together.”
Yes, we live in a desert. Almost 75% of Oregon is high desert…essentially all of the area east of the Cascades.