The head of the Link River in Klamath Falls, Ore., with Upper Klamath Lake in the background.

Words by Alex Schwartz, Photos by Arden Barnes

Herald and News / Report for America

The western United States, where water once ebbed and flowed through arid sagebrush, ancient wetlands and wooded forests, has been carved, plugged and drained beyond recognition. Streams flow uphill, backwards and even across watersheds to support endless acres of cropland and cities tens of millions of people strong. The mighty rivers that carved the Grand Canyon and the Columbia Gorge over millions of years can now be controlled by someone sitting at a desk in an office, their seemingly limitless waters harnessed as fuel for the West’s skyrocketing economy.

But all the shaping and damming has turned a free-flowing landscape into a system of bottlenecks. Water managers can no longer leave hard decisions up to nature: They must now choose which users of a watershed (including the very species that evolved with it) are entitled to water when there’s not enough to go around and figure out how to get rid of excess water when there’s too much. But they cannot control how much water they have to work with, or when they’ll have it.

The head of the Link River in Klamath Falls is one of the more extreme examples of the western water bottleneck in action: Here, water is pulled three ways. Upper Klamath Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Rocky Mountains, drains through a short canyon into Lake Ewauna, whose banks eventually narrow to birth the Klamath River. The lake is home to C’waam and Koptu, two endangered sucker species whose populations once numbered in the millions, and the river supports what used to be the third most important salmon population on the West Coast. Both types of fish are integral to the diets and cultures of numerous Native American tribes throughout the Klamath Basin.

Link River Dam barricades the canyon, impounding Upper Klamath Lake and regulating the flow of the Klamath River. The dam replaced a basalt reef that did both of these things naturally, cutting a notch in the rock and allowing humans to control the height of the lake. (Thanks to inconsistent pre-dam data, few can agree on the original height of the reef and, by extension, the natural lake’s exact range in elevation — such scientific ambiguity is a common occurrence in the basin.)

East of the bridge upstream from the dam lie the headworks of the A Canal, principal irrigation artery to the Klamath Project, a 220,000-acre network of canals, pumps, dams and drainages managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and a number of local irrigation districts. The project historically diverted at least 300,000 acre-feet of water (more than 97 billion gallons) from the lake through this canal each spring and summer to irrigate crops like potatoes, onions, alfalfa and grain, supporting roughly 1,200 family farms.

The project also delivers water for wetland habitat and cooperative farming on two wildlife refuges, remnants of a vast “Everglades of the West” that once hosted millions of migrating birds a year on the Pacific Flyway.

This small area, roughly 40 acres of water, may be the most contentious point in the Klamath Basin. Each year, Reclamation must decide how much water will stay in the lake, how much will be diverted through the A Canal and how much will flow through Link River Dam into the Klamath River. When drought sets in, the three-way tug-of-war gets tighter.

Waterfowl sit in a partially-drained Tule Lake Sump 1A on June 8, 2021. Sump 1A was drained into Sump B to try and prevent the spread of botulism. Eventually, Sump 1A will be refilled to create a food supply and better environment for the waterfowl in the area.

Waterfowl sit in a draining wetland on Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge on June 8, 2021.

Drought is no stranger to the Klamath Basin. But twenty years ago, following a century and a half of control by settlers, it began tearing at the fabric of the watershed. Farmers saw their water supply cut off for the first time since the Klamath Project’s inception. Young fish perished up and down the watershed. Migrating birds’ ancestral rest stops reduced to mud puddles. Indigenous people saw themselves vilified for seeking the protection of natural and cultural resources promised to them by treaties.

2001 was not the driest year in the basin. For decades, the government would reduce river flows and lake levels to provide a reliable irrigation supply for producers in the Klamath Project during drought years. But by 2001, federal policy had changed. After decades of declining fish populations, the government attempted to pass more of the drought burden onto irrigators. It didn’t go over well — farmers took to the A Canal headgates, protested the lack of water and even forced the canal open. During the following year’s drought, the federal government flip-flopped and delivered water to irrigators, and tens of thousands of adult salmon died on the lower Klamath and Trinity Rivers. It was the country’s largest inland fish kill.

Little changed in the two decades that followed. Suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and salmon on the Klamath River continued to decline. The few remaining wetlands on the basin’s national wildlife refuges scrambled for a dwindling supply of water. Disease outbreaks and toxic algal blooms suffocated ecosystems, and unprecedented wildfires torched the once-resilient forests surrounding them. Farmers struggled to cope with a wildly fluctuating — and rarely full — irrigation allocation, and tribal members watched their ancestral food sources wither away. Groups sued each other in court. Even in wetter years, no one was whole.

People hang out on a boat ramp near the mouth of the Klamath River on July 21, 2021.

People hang out on a boat ramp near the mouth of the Klamath River on July 21, 2021.

Following the devastation of the early 2000s, a group representing a majority of stakeholders in the watershed put immense time and effort into crafting an agreement that would bring balance to water management in the basin. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement devised a system to provide farmers and wildlife refuges in the Klamath Project a guarantee of water each year. In exchange, federal dollars (nearly a billion) would be spent on landscape-scale restoration to improve fish habitat.

The KBRA wasn’t perfect, and everyone had to give something up in order to gain anything. It didn’t enjoy unanimous support locally. But it was a plan and a compromise, directing money to be spent on restoration instead of litigation.

Congress failed to pass the agreement at the end of 2015. For now, the courts have won out.

The summer of 2021 was more than an anniversary of the tumult of 2001 — it was a repetition. Less water entered Upper Klamath Lake in the spring than almost any on record, and the lake sat more than a foot below requirements for sucker habitat. In April, Reclamation announced that, for the first time ever, no water would enter the A Canal for the entire summer. They sealed the canal off from the lake, cancelled a flow event needed to flush out a downriver fish parasite and gave the wildlife refuges a pittance of water to keep a fraction of their remaining wetlands alive.

For some — particularly farmers — this summer was even harder to swallow knowing that a plan existed that could have secured a reliable water supply even in the driest of years.

With no water in main irrigation arteries and larger farms and irrigation districts pumping groundwater to fulfill contracts, domestic wells in the Klamath Project’s footprint went dry, leaving nearly 300 homes without running water. Early summer heatwaves toasted some farmers’ attempts to grow dry crops without irrigation. Ranchers sold cattle, unable to feed or water their full herds. Swaths of baby salmon succumbed to the parasite Ceratonova shasta, their lesioned carcasses littering the banks of the Klamath River.

Thousands of trees, like these pictured on July 15, 2021, were burned in the Bootleg Fire.

Thousands of trees, like these pictured on July 15, 2021, were burned in the Bootleg Fire.

The sun, shrouded in smoke from the Bootleg Fire, sets over Upper Klamath Lake on July 12, 2021.

As the summer heat wore on, trees quaked in dry winds and monsoonal lightning storms ripped through the region. Fires erupted, raging out of control in unnaturally dense stands of vegetation. More than 1.1 million acres burned in the basin just this year alone — nearly 12% of the watershed’s total acreage. Smoke blanketed lowlands for months: The city of Klamath Falls saw 42 days with an unhealthy air quality index above 100. As the airborne ash choked their eyes and lungs, even residents not directly concerned about farming, fishing or wildlife in the basin felt the sting of drought this summer.

As in 2001, an extremist element mobilized next to the A Canal headgates, spearheaded by two irrigators with ties to Ammon Bundy. They made clear their intentions to once again force open the canal and have a standoff with the federal government for “stealing” their water and giving it to the fish.

But the broader agricultural community — partly battered and fractured by 20 years of economic decline, partly accepting the validity of tribal rights to water, partly apprehensive at the hijacking of their struggle by outside interests like Bundy and partly concerned about losing the precious federal drought relief funding that would help pay their bills this summer in lieu of crop sales — didn’t back up the would-be agitators.

Modestly attended by concerned citizens but relatively few Project irrigators, gatherings at the headgates remained peaceful before fizzling out at the end of June. By the time the wildfire smoke descended, the red-and-white tent that had attracted national media attention and set the local community on edge was gone.

The Water Crisis Info Center tent sits next to the A Canal headgates on June 2, 2021.

A shift in the political pendulum wasn’t the only thing that began in 2001. Scientists say this was around the time the West entered a lengthy period of chronic dryness known as a “megadrought.” Such cycles are not unheard of in this region of North America, which experienced such dry spells for as long as 40 years at a time in the 12th and 13th Centuries (and as recently as the 1930s), following temperature shifts in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

But evidence points to a culprit that has made the current megadrought more intense than it would have been naturally: climate change. The global rise in average temperature has shifted the baseline of a number of drought indicators and led to more extreme behavior in the water cycle.

That doesn’t mean the basin will never see a wet year again, but it means water won’t be available where, when and to the same extent it has been in the past.

While the Klamath Basin’s water crisis was set in motion long before climate change became apparent, could a future of intensifying drought be the nail in the coffin for a watershed that has already lost so much? Or could the most complex, immediate, all-encompassing issue of our time provide an opportunity to fix the watershed’s damaged ecosystems and shift its communities’ relationships to each other and the planet?

The Klamath still has the ingredients of a successful watershed: Land, water, plants, birds, fish and people who care deeply about their homes and communities. But those things must be intricately connected in order to survive. Instead, for more than a hundred  years, the basin has been sectioned off, connected only by a series of choke points that make it a lot easier for stakeholders to argue than to collaborate.

As the dust settles and precious precipitation returns, the people of the Klamath Basin have a choice: Retreat down the path of litigation and vague animosity until the next drought blows things up again, or reconnect the watershed to forge a resilient future together. This series is the story of how we solve the Klamath puzzle — and what happens if we don’t.



This story was produced with funding and support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, which aims to advance various disciplines toward a “people-centric and planet-positive future” that addresses environmental challenges. This was the first year ESI offered a fellowship to local journalists to produce reporting on climate change impacts and solutions in their communities. Five newsrooms including the Herald and News received fellowships, which lasted from late May to late October of 2021. In addition to financial support, ESI offered resources on climate research, storytelling and multimedia.

The Herald and News also receives support for reporter Alex Schwartz and photographer Arden Barnes through Report for America, a national service journalism corps program that aims to combat the decline in local news. Alex’s salary this summer was paid directly by MIT.

The Herald and News has maintained complete editorial independence throughout the duration of this fellowship. No other organization, including MIT or Report for America, has dictated how we reported, produced or edited this project.

Acknowledgements are in order for everyone who has appeared quoted in this series, along with the generous people who lent their expertise behind the scenes. Thank you to Julie Alexander, Jonny Armstrong, Ron Barnes, Jerri Bartholomew, Nadine Bailey, Caroline Brady, Ron Cole, Clayton Creager, Biswanath Dari, Erica Fleishman, Joey Gentry, Hannah Gosnell, Sascha Hallett, Dave Hering, Steve Hilbert, Leaf Hillman, Lisa Hillman, Jamie Holt, Mark Johnson, Nick Joslin, Leanne Knutson, Tracey Liskey, Emma Marris, Andy Marx, Marshal Moser, Stephen Most, Imtiaz Rangwala, Gene Souza, Craig Tucker, Taylor Tupper, Randy Turner, Dave Webb, Paul Wilson, and Rob Wilson.

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