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Western Showdown: Saving the Klamath

How the tribes of the Klamath River stood up for the salmon—and won.

spread outwater

It was a dramatic scene in a classic Western water war: Thousands of dead fish, washed up on the shores of the Klamath River. A move meant to help farmers—using Klamath water to irrigate crops—triggered a loss for Indian tribes and the salmon.

That was five years ago, when a detente in the battle was nowhere in sight.

As with many Western rivers, irrigators own nearly all of the water in the Klamath. The river, which straddles the border between Oregon and California, irrigates fields and generates electricity, but it also serves as fish habitat.

The Klamath River was once the third largest salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing roughly a million salmon a year. The upper reaches of the Klamath were originally enormous wetlands and lakes that served as a stopover for millions of waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway, a nursery for tens of millions of fish, and home to two unique species of suckers.

Tribes Photo by Patrick McCully

Klamath Basin tribes and allies fought for removal of PacifiCorp’s Klamath River dams to
help restore salmon runs.

Photo by Patrick McCully

The conflict between Klamath-area farmers and fishermen has lasted for decades, complete with lawsuits and public relations campaigns, a disastrous political intervention, and a thrilling finale. But this year, after 15 years of meetings, an agreement was forged to allow the parties to share water; a related agreement calls for removing four dams. The linchpin? The Yurok and Klamath tribes.

Indian treaties from the 19th century give the Yurok and Klamath the right to speak for the salmon. Through these treaties, the tribes established the salmon’s right to water and required that the river be managed with the health of migrating salmon in mind. Since Indian treaty rights predate the farmers’ rights, salmon have priority over crops.

In 1994, the Yurok formed a fisheries program to develop the legal, political, and biological expertise to restore the Klamath Basin. “We’re salmon people,” says Yurok tribal member Troy Fletcher. “The existence of the Yurok people depends on the health of the Klamath and its fisheries. This is something the creator provided the tribe, and it is the responsibility of the tribe to have healthy fisheries.”

But first, a deal had to be made.

How the Water Was Won

Water is scarce in most Western states, and the laws governing its use date all the way back to the mining days of the 1800s, when mine owners diverted the high mountain streams to power mills that crushed ore; open-pit miners also used water to separate gold from gravel. But rather than allow one person to divert the entire stream, individual mining camps divided the flow into water rights based on the location of the diversion, the amount of water taken, and the date the right was established. Water courts, set up shortly after Western territories became states, enforced these rules. A water right keeps its original date no matter how many times it’s bought and sold; earlier rights have priority.

River Photo by Ken Malcolmson

The Klamath River, looking upstream toward Orleans, Calif., in the Six Rivers National Forest.

Photo by Ken Malcomson

When ranchers and farmers moved in, salable water rights worked as a way to cope with low rainfall. Farmers without a stream running through their property, for example, could buy rights to use water from a neighbor’s stream. Ranchers and farmers own between

75 percent and 95 percent of the surface flow in Western states, while government-funded dams have helped provide water for holders of more recent water rights—cities. By the 1960s, most Western rivers were dammed, and irrigators with frontier-era water rights drained many rivers. Since then, fish populations have crashed, and rivers have become battlegrounds for fishermen, farmers, ranchers, tribes, utilities, businesses, environmentalists, and recreationists.

With modern irrigation systems, farmers can cultivate the same acreage using much less water. But according to mining-era laws, you lose rights to water you don’t use. So across the West, farmers grow wet-weather crops on arid land with inefficient irrigation methods in order to avoid losing their water rights. Meanwhile, cities run dry. In a reasonable world, some of a river’s flow would be diverted for agriculture, and some of the flow would remain in the river to nurture the fish. But when water is privately owned, those management decisions are more difficult. Take the Klamath Basin, where farmers own 93 percent of the surface water.

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