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Western Showdown: Saving the Klamath

How the tribes of the Klamath River stood up for the salmon—and won.
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Starting in 1905, the federal government began draining much of the Klamath Basin wetlands and lakes for farmland. Today, farmers there cultivate about 500,000 acres of irrigated cropland adjacent to six national wildlife refuges, which serve as a stopover for migratory birds and shelter the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. The Bureau of Reclamation built two dams on the Klamath and dammed many of its tributaries, while utilities built three others downstream. Upstream farmers divert most of the water to irrigate crops, and manure and fertilizers contaminate the river’s reduced flow. Dams slow the flow, the water heats up, and pollutants breed algae that color the river a bright pea green every summer. The river is so badly damaged that the Klamath’s coho salmon face extinction.

Indian treaties from the 19th century give the Yurok and Klamath the right to speak for the salmon ... Since Indian treaty rights predate the farmers’ rights, salmon have priority over crops.

Enter the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Native American treaty rights. The ESA protects the habitat that endangered plants and animals need to survive. The Lost River sucker and the shortnose sucker, two species of formerly plentiful lake fish in the Klamath Basin, were listed as endangered in 1988; the Klamath coho salmon was listed in 1997. According to the ESA, these fish have the right to survive and need water for habitat. And by treaty, the Yurok and Klamath tribes have the right to catch them. When the Yurok treaty was ratified in 1855, the tribe retained its right to fish for salmon. In 1864, the Klamath tribe was granted a federally reserved fishing right. Since water rights are based on prior appropriation, the Indian treaty rights to fish trump the farmers’ rights to irrigate.

During the drought of 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shut off the irrigation water from Clear Lake to protect endangered suckers and was sued by a group of farmers and ranchers from the Langell Valley. More lawsuits followed.

In 1995, U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., assembled the Klamath Basin stakeholders and asked them to resolve the water impasse. Local businesses, farmers, ranchers, utilities, conservation groups, the commercial fishing industry, and the tribes were represented in the working group, and Hatfield promised that if they came up with a solution, he’d make it happen. He retired two years later, but the meetings continued.

In 2001, the Klamath Basin received half its normal rainfall, and a group of environmentalists and the fisheries industry sued the Bureau of Reclamation to limit water deliveries to farmers. Scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service concurred, and the Bureau of Reclamation cut off water to the 1,200 farmers in the Klamath’s upper basin. The farmers lost their crops, for which the government compensated them $36 million.

AlgaePocket Photo by Thomas B. Dunklin

This photo was used in court to establish the extent of algae blooms, which turn the river green and kill the fish.

The next year was dry as well but the farmers had no intention of losing their water a second time. The Klamath Bucket Brigade, a grassroots organization of farmers, had a message for Washington, D.C., from rural America: They claimed that the Endangered Species Act threatens the nation’s economic health, and rural property rights were being abused. Their plight struck a chord with the Bush administration, and the irrigators got their full measure of water in 2002. Interior Secretary Gale Norton flew in to open the ditch gates herself. By the end of the summer, low water and high temperatures triggered a bacterial infection that left at least 34,000 dead salmon rotting in the Klamath River.

The waste of those tens of thousands of chinook salmon—some of the last Klamath salmon on Earth—shocked all the parties involved into recognizing that even though farmers held rights, what was happening was wrong.

Everyone was “totally frustrated,” said Fletcher, who helped negotiate the agreement for the Yurok. “They were broke, and beat up by Congress and the administration. All of the parties tried litigation. All tried political routes. And in the end, it turns out that the communities in the basin are the ones who know best how to solve the problems they’re faced with.”

On Feb. 18, 2010, all 28 parties signed an agreement to restore the Klamath Basin. “The Klamath River, which for years was synonymous with controversy, is now a stunning example of how cooperation and partnership can resolve difficult conflicts,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in announcing the agreement. The 369-page plan includes habitat restoration and flow management. Water is provided for agriculture, but the levees around the lakes will be breached, wetlands restored, and, according to the companion agreement, four dams removed to allow salmon access to hundreds of miles of spawning streams while improving water quality.

The plans amount to a compromise; no interest group got all it wanted. And federal money still must be set aside.

It’s a daunting task, Fletcher said. “Now we have to make it happen.”

Alice Outwater wrote this article for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Alice is a writer based in Durango, Colo. She is the author of Water: A Natural History  and co-author of The Cartoon Guide to the Environment.


A summary of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement is available from the Yurok Tribe:


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