How politics, economics and other human forces obstruct a sustainable Klamath Basin
Words by Alex Schwartz, Photos by Arden Barnes
Herald and News / Report for America
Upper Klamath Lake from Moore Park on Oct. 28, 2021.
When archaeologists from some other planet sift through the bleached bones of our civilization, they may well conclude that our temples were dams.
— Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert
On November 5, 1922, in the volcanic scrublands just south of the Oregon-California border, a group of people gathered on a hill above the Klamath River to celebrate a newly minted, 126-foot wall of concrete.
A local band played “America the Beautiful” and the American flag unfurled from a flagpole on the dam. Soldiers fired a salute from atop the mountain. The attendees had a picnic and local officials made speeches praising the utility bringing large-scale hydroelectric power generation to the area. At the time, the Siskiyou Daily News called the project “one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world,” able to produce 12,500 kilowatts of energy.
Area residents observe the construction of Copco Dam on July 23, 1922. Photo courtesy of the Klamath County Museum
At the end of the event, the daughter of the California Oregon Power Company’s board chairman flipped a switch, turning the generator on and feeding the power of the Klamath River into the regional grid. Copco Dam was officially in operation.
The newspaper paraphrased a Yreka judge who told a romantic story of development in the region, of how white American settlement had progressed the area by leaps and bounds. Horses had been upgraded to oxen and then to cars in a matter of decades. And thanks to the booming development of hydropower, the sky would be the limit.
“It is but a matter of a few years until we will be coming to the Copco picnics and future dedicatory ceremonies flying through the air,” the article read.
But one community’s progress was another’s decline. The dam almost perfectly bisected the Klamath Basin, and due to its height, it wasn’t feasible to construct fish passage infrastructure at the dam. Salmon lost access to hundreds of miles of spawning habitat in the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake.
A June 1921 article in the Klamath Evening Herald had pointed out that the watershed was at a crossroads. Would it become a major hydropower-producing stream or California’s salmon stronghold?
“Along with it is the problem (of) whether the need for electricity ranks higher in the law than a food supply for the Indians,” the article read.
Fast forward 100 years, and the Klamath is known for neither an abundance of hydropower nor an abundance of salmon.
Copco Dam on July 23, 1922.Photo courtesy of the Klamath County Museum
The dams on the Klamath below Keno can generate up to 169 megawatts of power, or about 1.1% of California’s total hydroelectric generation capacity. And the basin’s salmon runs are a fraction of what they used to be — the dams have already done their damage.
Copco constructed a second, smaller Copco dam, called Copco No. 2, just below the original structure (now called Copco No. 1) in 1925. The company built J.C. Boyle Dam, named after the engineer responsible for much of the hydropower infrastructure on the Klamath, several miles upstream from Copco Reservoir in 1958. Six years later, the red, earthen Iron Gate Dam plugged the river below the two Copco structures, intended to better moderate the wildly fluctuating flows produced by the output of the upstream dams’ hydroelectric turbines.
Iron Gate got a little too good at regulating those flows, mellowing the storm-driven swells that would have been naturally present in the river. That allowed a colony of parasite-spewing worms to carpet the riverbed below the dam, feeding on the stable, nutrient-rich water from the dams’ reservoirs right in the middle of salmon spawning ground. The warm reservoirs act like bathtubs, fueling massive outbreaks of toxic algae similar to Upper Klamath Lake, only much more concentrated, that persist down to the ocean in some years.
Just as the head of the Link River is a water quantity choke point, the four hydroelectric dams are a water quality choke point. For tribes and environmental groups and even some agriculture supporters in the Klamath Basin, the solution is to take them out.
A coalition has been engaging with PacifiCorp, the utility that now owns the dams, for more than two decades. The company’s license to operate the dams expired in the early 2000s, and renewing it would have meant compliance with a host of environmental laws that didn’t exist when the dams were first built. Activists spent years convincing the company that the better — and cheaper — option would be to remove J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1 and 2 and Iron Gate outright and leave Keno and Link River dams, which do have fish passage infrastructure.
Those negotiations occurred parallel to settlement talks for the 2010 Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), a broad-sweeping plan to rehabilitate ecosystems throughout the basin, support the return of former reservation land to the Klamath Tribes and set a floor and ceiling for water deliveries to the Klamath Project and the wildlife refuges hooked up to it.
Parties to the dam removal conversation forged the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) alongside the KBRA, which asked the Department of the Interior to investigate and subsequently approve the removal of the four dams. It designated a separate entity to acquire the dam license, surrender it and carry out the removal and restoration of the reservoir footprints.
Iron Gate Dam on September 21, 2020. Photo by Alex Schwartz
In exchange for PacifiCorp paying half the cost of the project through surcharges on its Oregon and California customers (the rest paid for through a California water bond program), the utility would be allowed to walk away from the dam licenses and bear no responsibility during their removal.
The KBRA also funded the 2014 Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, which would have addressed water rights disputes outside the Klamath Project, restored tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake and reduced water demand above the lake.
The trio of agreements were the result of more than a decade of relationship-building and tiresome negotiations among disparate communities in the Klamath Basin — but they required federal funding to be implemented. Thanks to the political gridlock that has defined the 21st century, they sat in Congress for five years before expiring at the end of 2015.
The following year, parties to the KHSA amended the agreement, removing the involvement of the Department of Interior and taking the slower route of acquiring permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to remove the dams. FERC approved the license transfer in the spring of 2021, triggering a lengthy environmental review process that is still ongoing. The dams are expected to come out in 2023.
Ironically, many say the removal of those four barriers on the Klamath River was the primary hurdle that kept the rest of the restoration package from passing. Now, it’s the only component moving forward. And though it originally had broad support among agricultural, fishing and tribal leaders and is still expected to take a great deal of pressure off the system, the project is not shaping up to be the unifying beacon of renewal they envisioned. Everyone in the basin is yearning for something positive, but not all communities are rallying around the largest river restoration project in U.S. history that’s about to take place in their backyards.
Attitudes toward dam removal illustrate that perhaps the most difficult obstacles to overcome in the Klamath Basin aren’t 160-foot walls of concrete — in fact, they’re not physical at all.
Who killed the KBRA?
For farmers and ranchers in the Upper Basin, dam removal is an expensive project that should’ve been accompanied by a reliable irrigation supply as spelled out in the KBRA.
At best, downstream dam removal will have little to no effect on the basin’s agricultural communities and may bring a few salmon back to their neck of the woods.
At worst, however, the effort is an affront to the existence of agriculture in the West, a half-baked science experiment that could kill what remains of the Klamath River — or even an insidious plot by the United Nations and nebulous wealthy elites to destroy rural livelihoods.
Though historic, dam removal won’t be a panacea for the entire basin or even for salmon — the fish will return to an Upper Basin wildly altered after more than a century of development and land use changes. Water quality will remain an issue for decades as farmers and ranchers work to restore riparian areas and reduce chemical inputs. Essentially, the project is a major surgery on the watershed that still requires extensive recovery.
Additionally, scientists expect dam removal will help salmon become more resilient in the face of climate change. Eliminating the reservoirs will help keep water cool, combatting the potential acceleration of parasite life cycles throughout the Klamath River. It will also give fish access to more reliable cold-water habitat in the largely spring-fed Upper Basin.
“This isn’t speculation. I don’t think anybody’s ever said that if we take these dams out, we’re home free,” said Mike Belchik, senior water policy analyst for the Yurok Tribe. “We’ve always said it’s a key element of restoration. I think it helps secure their long-term future.”
The most vocal opponents to dam removal are a group of Siskiyou County landowners who live on the two reservoirs formed by the dams. Their property values may decrease during the years-long restoration effort expected to take place after the reservoir drawdown. Some have wells that may be hydrologically connected to the man-made lakes. There have since been provisions made in the dam removal plan that establish funding to mitigate direct impacts on landowners, but they weren’t part of the conversation from the get-go.
Iron Gate Reservoir, pictured on July 7, 2021, is one of two reservoirs created by dams in Siskiyou County.
“I think PacifiCorp screwed up by not talking to those people right off the bat saying, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to make it worth your while,’” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance.
Despite their valid concerns for their own properties, the landowners have become a source of misinformation surrounding the dam removal effort. Most recently, they’ve argued that, even before the dams’ construction, salmon never made it past the site of Copco No. 1 — despite numerous anecdotal accounts and archaeological evidence of their presence in the Upper Basin. The county itself, which also opposes dam removal, stands to lose tax revenue from the dams once they come out and has expressed concern regarding the project’s impacts on funding for roads, reservoir recreation facilities and firefighting capabilities.
The trio of Klamath agreements also met opposition from irrigators in the Upper Basin outside the Klamath Project, who believed their water rights would win out in Oregon’s general stream adjudication of the Klamath Basin, which had been ongoing since the 1970s.
The administrative phase of the adjudication, which concluded in 2013, delivered a list of enforceable water rights that favored the Klamath Tribes. The Tribes have since made calls on all the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake during drought years, and only a select few properties in the area have rights senior enough to continue their diversions.
Now, irrigators have the much more arduous task of trying to prove in court that those calls don’t actually benefit the C’waam and Koptu, and therefore don’t put water to beneficial use. Until then, they won’t get any water.
“They felt like irrigators were settling for something that they could get much better if they stayed and fought in the adjudication,” Keppen said. “And we’re like — just look around the West. How’s that worked out so far? The tribes prevail always.”
Keppen said these two groups joined forces to execute a small but vocal campaign in opposition to the Klamath agreements. They focused much of their rhetoric on dam removal, and people opposing irrigators giving up any water (or any other provisions in the agreements) latched onto those tactics to torpedo the KBRA.
“The opponents of the KBRA did a good job of putting out a lot of misinformation and stoking fears,” Keppen said. “They didn’t really talk about the water rights — they talked about the dam removal, because that was more compelling. These people were fired up, and they would do whatever it took to try to back people off.”
Though the four dams slated for removal don’t provide any water for irrigation or flood control, public discussion still conflated them with water storage. People incredulously wondered why there was an effort to remove dams during a time of chronic drought.
That extended all the way to the federal level. Doc Hastings, a former Republican from Washington’s 4th Congressional District, was chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. After stakeholders signed the agreements in 2010, he made clear his hesitation to support them because of dam removal.
“These are complicated agreements that will result in the loss of clean, renewable hydropower and potentially cost American taxpayers up to $1 billion,” Hastings said in a statement that year.
Dam removal became a toxic point for those involved with the KBRA. Two Klamath County Commissioners who supported the suite of agreements but expressly said they didn’t favor dam removal still met backlash. The Commission eventually withdrew from the agreements and issued a letter opposing the 2014 Senate bill that included them, despite pleas from 75% of public commenters not to do so.
Rep. Greg Walden spoke with farmers, ranchers and community leaders on the continued drought crisis in the Klamath Basin during a visit at the Klamath County Chamber of Commerce offices on March 10, 2018. H&N file photo by Sean Bassinger.
“I would like to see it out of this agreement, the dam removal,” said then-Commission Chair Jim Bellet. “And then I think you would get an awful lot of support. I think this is what everybody’s hung up on. I would like to see it taken out.”
In 2014, 79% of Siskiyou County voters said they were in favor of keeping the dams. A similar ballot measure in Klamath County two years later saw 72% of voters opposing dam removal. Both measures were non-binding advisory votes and had no effect on the implementation of the KHSA — they just took stock of public opinion in the counties.
But even though locals couldn’t vote dam removal away, their opposition to it helped prevent the rest of the water agreements from making it through Congress. Former Republican Representative Greg Walden introduced a house KBRA bill in 2012 which sat stagnant with little hope of making it out of committee. He cited the lack of local support for dam removal as a reason for its inevitable failure.
“When three-quarters of the population says no to dam removal, that’s a problem you can’t skip over,” Walden told the Herald and News at the time.
Some in the basin blame Walden himself for not fighting hard enough to get the agreements through Congress, especially since he had assured stakeholders following 2001 that, if they came to him with a plan, he’d bring it to life.
“We were specifically told by him to sit down and come up with an agreement and that he would back us, so we did. He just betrayed us,” Belchik said. “He had a chance to lead. It would’ve taken some courage to stand up and go, ‘I’m going to take care of the farmers here.’”
Keppen said Walden was in a bind. He couldn’t stick his neck out for legislation that didn’t have broad enough support on the ground, especially if it was going to require federal spending during the Tea Party Era. He eventually came around to supporting the agreement in 2015, but by then it was too late to gain political momentum before it expired at the end of the year.
“Soccer moms in Portland loved it, but Walden’s district is strongly Republican — lots of ranchers,” Keppen said. “It was harder for him to have a strong political foothold, in my view.”
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) agreed. While his delegation worked to get support from their chamber’s colleagues when the KBRA legislation was introduced in Congress, he said no one in the Senate would OK the bill without support in the House of Representatives.
“It wasn’t that Congressman Walden was operating in a vacuum — he was getting tremendous feedback against the agreement,” Merkley said.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (right) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (left) speak to media in Beatty, Ore. on Aug. 19, 2021
Off-project rancher Becky Hyde thinks the basin just wasn’t a priority for the congressman. Folks on all sides of the issue in the basin share her sentiments.
“He was way up high in politics, and he was just not going to use his chips here, because he didn’t need to,” she said. “And you still don’t need to. You won’t get elected in the second district in Oregon by what the Klamath Basin does or doesn’t do. There’s not enough numbers here.”
Walden retired from public service at the end of 2020. He told the Herald and News in December of that year that one of his biggest regrets was not passing a comprehensive solution to the Klamath Basin water crisis. Again, he placed blame on colleagues who opposed dam removal.
“We never did find a key that would unlock the legislative lock. I tried different things to see if we could break the gridlock,” he said. “We did a lot but we never found a durable, fair solution that also could become law.”
Jim Root is president of the board of directors for the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit created by the KHSA to acquire the license for the dams, oversee their removal and restore the footprints of the reservoirs. He agreed that myths about and opposition to dam removal played a role in the death of the KBRA but said the project is, at this point, “inevitable.”
“There are opponents, but the opponents have next to no chance of succeeding and stopping the project,” Root said.
PacifiCorp and California have already delivered the project funds to KRRC, and the entity has negotiated maximum prices with the firms who will demolish the dams and perform environmental restoration work. Opponents to the project can voice their concerns in the FERC proceedings, but it’s up to the federal agency whether to grant or deny KRRC’s application to decommission the dams.
Root said even the leadership of Klamath and Siskiyou counties, which largely oppose dam removal, have entered into memoranda of understanding with KRRC allowing them to work collaboratively on their concerns with the organization if the project is approved, without requiring them to voice support for the project.
“To get five county supervisors to modify their zeal for dam removal was huge,” Root said.
Root thinks instead of turning into a political flashpoint, dam removal could’ve been something the entire basin rallied around. A common KBRA-era adage was “What’s good for fish is good for farmers” — that is, restoring aquatic habitat would also free up water for irrigators. Dam removal is expected to be a huge step forward without demanding more water over the long term. In fact, by eliminating billions of gallons of evaporation from the reservoirs and reducing disease pressure, it might lead to the river needing less water from Upper Klamath Lake.
“The benefits to the basin are very tangible,” Root said. “The opposition arguments, they just don’t hold water.”
The Upper Basin agricultural community isn’t necessarily as opposed to the project as it once was, but it has largely remained silent on the matter. Farmers and ranchers have lost friendships, politicians have lost elections and business owners have lost customers over their prior support of the KBRA. But Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, one of the parties to the KHSA, thinks there’s unspoken support.
“I think they’re tacitly hoping that we manage to get it done,” he said.
Now that dam removal is moving forward without the rest of the KBRA, future negotiations wouldn’t have to bring in its political baggage. But that also means irrigators in the Upper Basin have lost a great deal of leverage — they can’t threaten to withdraw support for a project that no longer involves them. And with basin tribes having secured a huge victory, they’re less likely to give anything up in the future.
“The dam removal became a bargaining chip in the KBRA, and ag would try to play that chip to try to gain more concessions for their position in the KBRA,” Root said. “But once those dams are out, that bargaining chip is gone, and it’s probably gone now due to the inevitability of the dams coming out.”
Klamath Water Users Association remains “non-opposed” to the implementation of the KHSA, though they have communicated concerns to FERC about the implementation of the Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement, which helps insulate Upper Basin irrigators from additional regulatory pressures brought on by the arrival of ESA-listed salmon to the area.
KWUA Executive Director Paul Simmons said agricultural stakeholders in the KBRA supported dam removal specifically because it would come with concessions to provide reliable water to farmers. Without that broader change in management of the basin and the money to do restoration work above the dams, he said people are concerned that dam removal would be a “random act of restoration” that doesn’t pan out the way proponents hope.
“There’s skepticism: A great, big box will be checked if the dams are gone, but it doesn’t affect people’s behavior or approach to the Klamath Project. We can’t rely on it,” Simmons said. “And there’s other people who think we won World War II with hydro dams.”
Where food comes from
Most of the potatoes used for french fries at In-N-Out Burger grow just a few miles outside Klamath Falls, but there’s no In-N-Out location in the Klamath Basin. You have to drive an hour and a half over a mountain pass to get it. And that’s just fast food — some of the larger outfits deliver whole potatoes to Walmart, but only in California. Even though there’s a Walmart in Klamath Falls, the nearest location that sells Klamath-grown potatoes is over another mountain pass in Yreka. Much of the Klamath Project’s other crops, from hay to horseradish, also end their lives far outside the watershed.
Despite containing thousands of acres of some of the most productive agricultural land in the country, Klamath County residents have some of the lowest rates of access to fresh, healthy food in Oregon. Around 15.4% of Klamath County residents — including 22.1% of its children — are food insecure. Obesity rates in the county are also four percentage points higher than the state as a whole, making it one of the unhealthiest counties in Oregon.
Tour-goers stop for a selfie in front of a pile of bulk storage potatoes at Staunton Farms during the Klamath Water Users Association Harvest Tour on Sept. 20, 2021.
On the California side of the Klamath Basin, Siskiyou county has a 16.2% food insecurity rate — the second-highest in California. Residents of Modoc, Humboldt, Trinity and Del Norte counties also report food insecurity at levels significantly higher than the state average.
The situation is even worse among the basin’s Indigenous communities. A 2019 assessment of Native American food insecurity among the Klamath, Karuk, Hupa and Yurok tribes surveyed and interviewed hundreds of tribal members about where they got their food. The results were striking.
The study found food insecurity rates in the Klamath Basin “higher than any other rates in comparable published studies in Native American communities to date” — 91.98% of households experience some level of food insecurity. On average, a quarter of Native Americans experience food insecurity nationwide.
A lack of fresh produce and declining availability of Native foods like fish, game and traditional plants led more than 83% of households to report at least one person suffering from a diet or lifestyle-related illness. Seventy percent of those surveyed said they rarely or never had access to desired traditional foods, citing environmental degradation and climate change as strong barriers to getting them.
A ripped poster showing the Klamath River Watershed is taped to the side of a freezer in the Salmon River Outpost in Somes Bar, Calif. on July 24, 2021.
The Salmon River Outpost is a convenience store located in Somes Bar, Calif.
Folks living in the exceptionally remote Lower Klamath Basin either catch their food from a river, hunt it in the mountains, grow it themselves or drive at least two hours to the nearest grocery store. The only other options are the tiny convenience stores that dot the isolated towns along the Klamath River. Fresh food selections there are often minimal and expensive.
More than having food stamps or even access to a grocery store, many tribal members would rather have a healthy watershed that produces harvestable fish populations, along with healthy forests that provide plants and game habitat.
“When the Klamath works, and when it’s healthy, it can produce so much and benefit so many people. And it has done that,” said Amy Cordalis, a Yurok citizen and the tribe’s general counsel. “We have to acknowledge that it’s been this great provider for all of us.”
Colonization decimated the basin’s natural ability to feed its people, while a globalized food system has constructed impossibly convoluted supply chains that usually end in these communities. While they work to heal the basin’s ecosystems, some tribal members are also putting their own spin on western-style agriculture to grow their own food.
On a sunny September day just north of Klamath, Calif., Louisa McCovey looked out over an overgrown pasture surrounding a small elementary school on the Yurok Reservation. Fringed by forested hills with a small creek running through it, she imagined what it would look like in a few years:
Rows of lettuce and kale would spring forth from rich soils. Beans would snake along corn stalks rising above budding squash. Bees from nearby hives, attracted by the native wildflower cover crops surrounding the garden beds, would pollinate vegetable plants. A central building, modeled after a traditional Yurok redwood plank house, would host cooking classes where multiple generations could teach each other how to prepare traditional foods like salmon and acorns. In the surrounding forest, youth would learn the art of cultural fire, allowing McCovey and her family to come pick huckleberries coaxed out by the gentle flames.
McCovey is most excited for the huckleberries. She can’t wait to bake them into a pie or turn them into jam knowing that they grew just down the road from her home in Requa.
Taylor Thompson (left), the Yurok Tribe’s food sovereignty division manager, and Louisa McCovey (right), the Tribe’s Environmental Director, pose for a portrait on Sept. 23, 2021, on the 48-acres of land soon to become a “food village”.
“I kind of envision this perfect place here that is 100% managed responsibly with our ecological knowledge while still producing really edible food,” McCovey said. “This is our land now, and that just feels so good.”
The Yurok Tribe purchased this 48-acre plot of land (formerly a cattle ranch) with CARES Act funding in 2020, after a collapse in the global food supply chain due to the pandemic exacerbated a serious food insecurity situation on their homelands. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture classified the Yurok Reservation as a food desert. McCovey, a Yurok citizen and the director of the Tribe’s environmental program, hopes to reduce Yuroks’ reliance on unreliable, unhealthy food.
“What better way to respond to the pandemic than being able to grow your own food?” she said.
McCovey said “farm” or even “community garden” aren’t quite the right words for what the Tribe is doing here: They’ve settled on “food village.” It will be a nexus for meeting tribal members’ nutritional needs with small-scale, regenerative farming while also strengthening their connections to traditional foods and land management techniques. Yurok citizens will be involved throughout the operation, from gardening to forest management to smoking salmon. They even have plans to restore the tiny creek that runs through the property, which is prime Coho habitat.
The land’s position surrounding an elementary school will also allow it to become an outdoor learning space for young kids, and crops from the garden will in turn be delivered to local schools and Head Start programs. The goal is for the entire Yurok reservation to be food sovereign, with the addition of two more food villages upriver.
The land Margaret Keating Elementary in Klamath, Calif., will soon be home to a “food village” for the Yurok Tribe.
“We’re trying to redefine what agriculture is in the traditional sense,” McCovey said.
The food village will apply the same principles surrounding traditional foods like salmon and acorns, where tribal people put energy into harvesting the foods that they receive back upon eating them, to more conventional foods like cauliflower and eggplants.
“There’s this really fantastic loop that happens,” she said.
Taylor Thompson, the Tribe’s food sovereignty division manager, has spent the last year feverishly applying for more than 42 federal, state and private grants to build the funding needed to turn the bristly pasture into a thriving garden. They’ve brought in over $1.5 million to the project in that relatively short amount of time.
Thompson said while money is the biggest obstacle to undertaking a project like this, there’s the added difficulty of being an Indigenous community applying for grants typically geared toward conventional farmers and ranchers. When white settlers first came to Yurok country, they saw Native people gathering food in the forests but failed to understand that those forests were the result of thousands of years of careful management, mainly through cultural fire.
In reality, Indigenous communities have been practicing their own forms of agriculture since time immemorial. It’s difficult for Thompson to communicate that to non-Native readers of grant applications, who, for example, may not automatically consider a collection of oak trees an “orchard” even though they technically fit the definition.
“I feel like I do a lot of translating,” they said. “What we’re trying to accomplish doesn’t fit in these colonizer frameworks. We’re trying to do more than that.”
Thompson said grant funders are becoming more receptive to the concept of traditional foods as agriculture, but it’s taken a lot of education.
Forested area and fields surrounding Margaret Keating Elementary school will be used for food by the Yurok Tribe.
“Because we’re in an Indigenous community trying to grow traditional foods, it’s like we have to do double the amount of work for the same amount of funding sometimes,” they said. “All in all, people are very receptive to hearing that. We’ll just see how long it takes for those policy changes to follow suit.”
McCovey thinks the food village could serve as a model for community agriculture that honors the Indigenous character of a place while incorporating practices that keep food resilient to climate change. If they’re successful, it could be replicated throughout the Klamath Basin.
“If we’re doing this, it’s not just benefiting us. It’s benefiting everyone,” McCovey said. “We pray for world balance and world renewal, so it’s not just for us.”
Thompson said the Yurok food sovereignty division is already partnering with the Potawot Community Food Garden, run by United Indian Health Services in Arcata, and the Native American Studies Program at Humboldt State University to connect this effort to a regional Indigenous food system spanning nine tribes on the northern California coast.
“I think it’s totally feasible to expand that even further,” Thompson said. “What does it look like as we move up the Klamath Basin?”
Katie Swanson, who runs the small-scale Sweet Union Farm in Klamath Falls, also struggles with keeping her locally focused operation viable. The USDA is slowly introducing programs to assist farmers of her size, but the support hasn’t gone institutional like conventional subsidies have in the Farm Bill.
“The entire infrastructure of the food system in this country is not set up for this,” Swanson said. “I’m not the target audience for anybody.”
Ryan Kliewer, who farms organic hay and raises 25 cows in the Klamath Project, agrees that there’s a need for the basin — and the global food system as a whole — to shift toward localized economies. It may mean more work and smaller yields, but he thinks there’s something to be said for trading growth for sustainability.
“Agriculture needs to diversify for an environmental gain,” Kliewer said. “There’s a certain responsibility that agriculture has to feed a nation, but agriculture hasn’t fully acknowledged the fact that it also needs to take care of the nation — its footprint.”
That’s why Kliewer farms organic, even though he has to use more land and water to achieve lower yields. He and his brother Ty started Skyline Brewing Company, on tap at a few bars and restaurants in Klamath Falls, partly because of the unreliability of irrigation water in the project, and partly because they wanted to share their love of brewing beer with their neighbors. Kliewer said they don’t have plans to expand far beyond the basin.
“Our whole goal here is to be a local brewery, make a fantastic product that is locally produced and locally sourced and start closing the loop back up,” he said. “We don’t want to be the next Coors — we want to be sustainable.”
Kliewer thinks the Klamath Project has to measure success in ways other than growth and profit in order to survive. That doesn’t mean farmers have to go back to winnowing their grain by hand, but he thinks his more conventional neighbors should strive for the long-term health of their lands rather than short-term sales.
“There is a free-market enterprise that needs to be maintained, but there needs to be the humbleness and humility of people to acknowledge: When is too much, too much?” Kliewer said. “We have to balance out human progress with sustainability and make those changes. Part of that is going to be uncomfortable, and part of that is going to probably be basking in the capacities of mankind.”
It’s not that conventional farmers don’t care about the health of their local environments or combatting food security in their communities, but it’s difficult to prioritize those things when the global food system that drives most agriculture in the basin doesn’t actually exist to keep people from going hungry.
Ben and Erika Duval pictured in their kitchen in Tulelake, Calif., on Aug. 19, 2021.
Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, has one of the smaller farms in the Klamath Project, clocking in at about 600 acres. He grows mainly alfalfa and grain while his wife, Erika, raises beef cattle. It’s a far cry from his grandfather’s operation, who homesteaded the property his house sits on in 1949. Back then, more than 100 acres would have been considered big, and everyone grew most of their own food and livestock in addition to selling some to market.
“I think they were a lot more self-sufficient, and then the community as a whole was a lot stronger,” Ben said. “But then again, they didn’t expect the kinds of things that we expect now.”
Aside from a small garden tended by their daughter Hannah and some lamb and beef they raised that sits in their freezer, the DuVals get most of their food from the grocery store. Gone are the days of self-sufficiency.
“For the most part, farmers are about as least concerned as anybody about where their food comes from,” Ben said. That’s largely because farmers know the kind of work ethic it takes to produce the food they buy at the store.
Modern agriculture has harnessed the power of specialization: The Klamath Basin is too frost-prone for large fruit orchards, so it doesn’t try to produce things like peaches or apples. But areas at lower altitudes have more pest and disease issues, making the basin a better place to grow potatoes and hay. That allows more food to be produced in areas it’s most suited to.
“This area grows this crop because they’re good at it, and that area grows that crop,” Ben said. “That way they can feed all these people and those people have time to become doctors and lawyers and everything like that, because they’re not worried about the time it takes to feed themselves.”
Hannah DuVal prepares to feeds her sheep at the Tulelake Fair on Sept. 10, 2021.
Still, this system creates a disconnect wherein the majority of farmers in the Klamath Basin don’t feed their neighbors. Erika said making the 45-minute trek to Klamath Falls and not seeing much local produce there despite the Klamath Project’s productivity can be disappointing.
“I do get irritated when I get into the grocery store and I’m like, ‘I am getting potatoes from Hermiston? This is ridiculous,’” she said.
Water rights in the climate change era
First in time, first in right: It’s the foundation of Western water law. Whoever used water from a stream first maintains the right to do so in perpetuity, even when droughts mean there’s not enough water left for everyone else who showed up later.
The prior appropriation doctrine allows senior water users to divert water from a stream and transport it great distances, even if it means a more junior user adjacent to the stream can’t take a drop. That system differs from riparian rights, which don’t divorce land from water: A user must use water diverted from a stream only on the property they own that borders it. Developed as part of English common law and extended to the Eastern U.S., the riparian system maintains that a water source doesn’t belong to any one person.
Though riparianism may seem more egalitarian, it doesn’t quite work for the drought-prone Western United States. In the British Isles, where precipitation is consistent throughout the year, water users usually don’t have to worry about taking too much from a river. Prior appropriation as a concept has drought management baked in: When there’s not enough water, some users will have to go without it. The system’s allowance for diversion away from water sources also facilitated the Reclamation Era, when the federal government replumbed the West to turn swamps into fields and deserts into oases.
Those claiming junior appropriative water rights understood that they may be regulated off during dry years, but the entities that weren’t consulted were the fish who made their homes in those streams before any humans showed up. After nearly two centuries of states giving out appropriative water rights largely unfettered, more water existed on paper than could flow in a stream even in the wettest of years. That meant fish often didn’t receive the amounts of water necessary to complete their life functions, intensifying droughts that they could normally survive.
Then along came environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, which compelled users in a system to consider animals whose populations had plummeted due in part to excessive diversions of water. But the ESA didn’t give species their own water rights outright. Instead, the federal legislation prevented users from diverting a stream so as to protect the fish swimming in it — in direct conflict with the appropriative systems run by states.
Now, with climate change altering hydrology and putting aquatic species at an even greater disadvantage, the appropriative system must balance instream needs with a litany of human demands.
The Shasta River seen from Louie Road on July 16, 2021.
This consequence was on full display in the Scott and Shasta valleys during the summer of 2021, when irrigators had diverted so much from the drought-stricken streams that their flow rates hovered in the single digits. The two watersheds are responsible for as much as a fifth of the fall Chinook in the entire basin, and the Scott River is one of its last Coho strongholds. At one point, the diversions dewatered entire stretches of the Scott, stranding some juvenile Coho in pools on the riverbed.
The conditions were so bad that, for the first time ever, the California Water Resources Control Board issued emergency instream flow requirements for both rivers, triggering a curtailment of diversions and groundwater pumping for all but their most senior water users. Salmon advocates said the regulations were a long time coming, but it raised concerns about how those rivers got to this point — and how they and their human users can adapt for the future.
Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the Water Board’s division of water rights, said part of it has to do with a lack of data on exactly how much each user diverts from the stream.
“We’re dealing with a legacy of 150 years of water rights, and for the vast majority of it, no one was really tracking it,” he said. “I think we’re now recognizing that maybe that’s not an effective approach in the era of climate change.”
Unlike Oregon, California’s water rights system is especially complicated because it contains both riparian and appropriative rights. Measuring so few of those uses has turned basins like the Scott and Shasta into diversion free-for-alls.
Both valleys had adjudications finished decades ago, but they didn’t cover all river miles and occurred before the needs of fish were considered. And many areas that were adjudicated had gone 60 to 85 years without watermasters tabulating water use. More water rights had been asserted even after the adjudications concluded, and wells had been drilled directly next to streams to effectively take groundwater-connected surface water without being subject to its related rules. Throughout all that, a legitimate water right for minimum instream flows was never awarded to salmon.
When the Water Board went to investigate the situation, Ekdahl said they found more than 200 adjudicated rights they had no idea where to place.
“I think it’s kind of fallen out of sight, out of mind, and once you lose track of it, it’s hard to get back,” he said. The current drought, fueled by climate change, made everything worse: Ekdahl said most surface water diversions in the Scott had already ceased by late summer because there was simply no more water in the river.
Over the span of a few months, the Water Board engaged with stakeholders in both basins to determine the best way to provide emergency flows in time for fall Chinook to arrive while reducing the impact on water users, some of whom had already performed voluntary conservation actions on their properties like reconnecting springs, removing dams or increasing irrigation efficiency.
But farmers pumping groundwater in the Scott and Shasta, subject to minimal regulation by the state, were able to operate almost like normal despite the exceptional drought conditions. Some got third and even fourth cuttings of alfalfa from green fields while the river running between them dried up. As the Water Board met in August to approve the emergency requirements, Karuk Tribe Spokesman Craig Tucker commented that you wouldn’t know the Scott Valley was in a drought unless you looked at the river.
Mount Shasta can be seen over a field of hay bales in the Shasta River Valley on July 16, 2021.
“These guys keep growing alfalfa whether it rains or not,” he said. “This has allowed hay farmers in the Scott Valley to basically be disaster capitalists.”
In some sense, the Scott and Shasta have been brought up to speed with the majority of agricultural users in the Klamath Basin, who have had their water curtailed to support fish populations for years.
DuVal said it’s prudent for other agricultural water users in the Klamath Basin to share the burden of drought. For too long, he said, Klamath Project farmers have taken the brunt of the regulatory hammer.
“They’ve been an island, even though that’s some of the most beneficial habitat. Even in 2001 and years since when we’ve been heavily curtailed, it’s just business as usual there,” he said. “If you’re using a resource like water, you can’t necessarily be a stick in the mud.”
While DuVal and other Klamath Project water users believe they’ve been subject to excessive curtailments that haven’t actually helped fish in the watershed, he doesn’t envision a future in which irrigators take as much as they want without much regard for the environment, as they had for most of the 20th century. Any comprehensive solution for the basin has to help agricultural communities ebb and flow with the water in the system.
“It was all about resource development, and we probably got a little carried away in that regard. And now I think we’ve gotten a little carried away with trying to, without looking at the big picture, focus on single-species management,” DuVal said. “It’s got to be about balance and not going from one extreme to the other.”
While ensuring that the entire Klamath Basin weathers drought together may help relieve pressure off the system’s choke points, regulations on water quantity alone won’t bring fish populations back up to snuff. Actions to improve water quality and restore habitat are also needed. That has been occurring in the Scott and Shasta for several decades, but not at the scale tribes and fish advocates say is required to make a difference. They say it’s time for sticks to accompany carrots.
“There’s a lot of interest locally in trying to come up with a balanced solution, and I think that’s a pleasant surprise,” Ekdahl said.
At the August Water Board meeting, local agricultural representatives in Siskiyou County worried that instituting the curtailments after 20 years of slow but genuine work on voluntary actions would discourage further work in that space, to everyone’s detriment. Still, the curtailments contain exceptions for landowners who can prove that a conservation project they implemented resulted in an increase of measurable flow in the rivers.
The Shasta River can be seen in the valley below CA-263 on July 16, 2021.
“The hard part about those voluntary, cooperative solutions is: Is that enough?” Ekdahl said. “What happens if you get 50% of the watershed that does a voluntary solution and the other 50% doesn’t, and you don’t hit your flow targets? There’s no blueprint for that scenario. Hopefully it rains.”
Because states didn’t recognize the need to keep a certain amount of water in rivers for fish while handing out water rights to humans, the Klamath Basin must essentially work backwards to determine who must give up water to the fish. Users like the Klamath Project irrigators, who originally had some of the more senior rights in the basin, aren’t happy at the prospect. Lawyers are having a field day.
“It’s still kind of an evolving legal doctrine and it will continue to evolve for a while,” Ekdahl said.
In Klamath Irrigation District v. Oregon Water Resources Department, irrigators in the Klamath Project have asserted that OWRD has allowed the Bureau of Reclamation to release stored water in Upper Klamath Lake for flows on the Klamath River — to the detriment of irrigators. OWRD assumed authority over all water rights on the Oregon side of the watershed following its 2013 issuance of determined claims in the Klamath Basin Adjudication.
KID argued that Reclamation didn’t possess the necessary water rights under Oregon law to be able to send Upper Klamath Lake water down the Klamath River to scour parasites below Iron Gate Dam. Such flows out of Link River Dam exceed the amount of water entering the lake, leading irrigators to argue that Reclamation was releasing stored water.
But the flows were required under the ESA, which Reclamation believes trumps state law. Beyond that, the Yurok Tribe is entitled to a healthy salmon fishery as outlined in its federally reserved rights, which necessarily include river flows that support the fish. The problem is that those rights have not been quantified or asserted in Oregon: From the state adjudication’s perspective, water rights for the salmon or the Yurok don’t exist.
As KID’s case asserts, however, OWRD has not stopped Reclamation from releasing those flows because it recognizes a legal gray area in which it may not have authority to prevent the federal government from fulfilling its ESA or tribal trust obligations. The case is still in litigation, and the results may provide more clarity on whether state or federal law should prevail in Upper Klamath Lake. Meanwhile, irrigators are attempting to prove in federal court that the ESA doesn’t compel Reclamation to send as much water downriver as it’s currently releasing.
“I tell people all the time — I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Paul Simmons, KWUA’s executive director and legal counsel.
Amy Cordalis, counsel to the Yurok Tribe, said quantifying the downriver water right will be key to a long-term solution in the Klamath Basin. It will help stakeholders know how much water the Klamath River is entitled to from Upper Klamath Lake.
“That is a critical piece of bringing peace to the basin,” Cordalis said. “It is powerful, it is supreme, it is there, it is not going anywhere.”
Amy Cordalis sits on the bow of her boat while cleaning a salmon near the mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.
The Klamath Tribes are in a different situation: The federal government asserted their rights in Oregon’s adjudication, and they came out largely victorious. They hold senior rights to the level of Upper Klamath Lake and to flows in its tributaries dating back to time immemorial. The tribal water calls now act as proxies for minimum instream flow requirements, preventing most irrigation diversions during droughts to ensure as much water as possible stays in the rivers and lake. The lake level water right — higher than what the ESA requires — is currently stayed until the adjudication can be officially settled through the courts.
Sue Noe, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund who represented the Klamath Tribes in the adjudication, said the Tribes’ treaty rights are more powerful and reliable than ESA protections or state flow requirements.
“They have to rely on their treaty rights, because those are the highest law of the land, and that’s the most security that they have,” Noe said.
But in an exceptional drought year like 2021, the Klamath Tribes’ adjudicated claim to Upper Klamath Lake wouldn’t have been met without serious reductions in flow to the Klamath River throughout the winter, spring and summer. The ESA lake levels already precluded Reclamation from releasing a flushing flow, which resulted in a mass die-off of juvenile salmon in May. If hydrology continues to worsen, the Klamath Tribes asserting their full right to Upper Klamath Lake could more often mean a dry Klamath River, dry refuges and dry Klamath Project farms.
The Klamath Tribes also asserted claims to the Klamath River below Link River Dam in order to reserve sufficient flow for when salmon return to the Upper Basin, but OWRD rejected those claims. Noe said there are plans to appeal that, and if successful the Tribes would likely — at least under state law — have the ability to determine how much water can leave Upper Klamath Lake.
The situation — where the C’waam and Koptu are entitled to lake levels that could potentially jeopardize other species in the system, let alone humans — illustrates how the current system of water rights in the West doesn’t adequately account for the natural ebb and flow of the region’s hydrology, let alone its intensification under climate change.
Becky Hyde, who has been impacted by the Tribes’ water calls on the Sprague River, said the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement provided a vision for flexibility during drought years. Each year type would have specified instream flows for each month, in each tributary to Upper Klamath Lake. Irrigators would rotate who would cease their diversions in order to keep the river flowing. Hyde said even though they didn’t have funding for the rest of the agreement, off-project irrigators still implemented the practice for several years, and it worked.
“You’re just sharing the water,” she said. “We did it through the whole system, and it really gave people a sense of hope and also a spirit of togetherness.”
Settlements like this are an alternative way for divvying up scarce water, requiring close coordination among all users in a system. But after the KBRA died in Congress and there was no funding to support it, the Klamath Tribes terminated the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement in 2018. Since then, they have communicated that they’re no longer interested in giving up any water. That limits not only what can be done above Upper Klamath Lake, but how much water can flow to the rest of the basin.
Fog rises over the Klamath River in Klamath, Calif., on Sept. 23, 2021.
“When you hear ‘stakeholders,’ it’s like we’re all in the room, we have an equal amount of concern and an equal amount to give up,” said Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry. “That’s the difficult thing: We’re not at a place of giving.”
Not only has the 2021 drought made the need for the West’s physical water infrastructure to adapt to climate change all the more clear, there’s also a question of whether the legal framework used in the region is even relevant anymore. Given more frequent years when junior users are consistently denied water, the gap between paper water and actual, wet water is widening. The Klamath Basin and its neighbors are woefully overallocated.
Jim McCarthy, southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch of Oregon, thinks the existing system is actually good at managing climate-related impacts — at least in theory. When there’s not enough water to meet everyone’s needs, diverters can use water markets to temporarily or permanently transfer their water rights to instream uses.
“It’s really an incredibly useful tool,” McCarthy said.
The problem is less a legal one and more a cultural one, McCarthy said. On paper, agricultural users originally had the most senior rights in the Klamath Basin, but they’ve since been displaced by environmental requirements. Though the fish were obviously here first and require some level of water, farmers disagree with how much regulators say they’re entitled to.
Talk of permanent transfers — even the purchasing of agricultural land from willing sellers — is a nonstarter for most irrigators, particularly in the Klamath Project. Former KWUA President Tricia Hill wrote in August that discussions of “downsizing” the project don’t take into account complexities regarding its plumbing and the broader economic impacts of reducing farmed acreage in the basin. Beyond that, she said it disregards irrigators who are willing and able to be part of the solution.
“Those who say ‘downsize’ the Project, whether they realize it or not, are saying the people and communities I love do not matter,” Hill wrote. “They are acknowledging that shifting them away and outside our community is a non-issue.”
A waterfowl species info board is available for visitors at a pull off along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge on June 2, 2021.
Still, some irrigators in the basin are willing to sell their water to meet environmental needs, like Wood River Valley rancher Kurt Thomas temporarily transferring a few thousand acre-feet to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in 2021 to help revive a drying wetland there. KWUA contested that transaction, arguing that not all of the amount designated to be transferred should be available to divert to the refuge because even full use of a water right always results in some percolation back to a stream. But beneath that was an obvious concern that the transfer would set a precedent for more frequent and permanent transfers in the future.
“Throw a rock in the Klamath Basin, and you’ll hit somebody who’s interfering with water right transfers. It’s absolutely wrong to say that our water laws are failing — our politics are failing to make the resources available to use water law to solve the problem,” McCarthy said. “People are standing in the way of using water law to benefit the environment.”
Like the dams that rise from the Klamath River one after another, the push toward a long-term equitable solution to the basin’s water woes faces more than one obstacle. First, local communities must come together to forge a durable, comprehensive agreement. Next, the federal government has to fund it and make it law. It’s hard to know which is the more challenging feat.
And in an increasingly volatile political atmosphere both nationally and locally, it’s increasingly rare for those two factors to line up. With the KBRA, stakeholders had a comprehensive agreement ready to present to the feds, but increased partisanship in Congress quashed hopes of getting legislation passed that required votes from both parties, regardless of how much support it had on the ground.
Now, there’s no negotiation table to speak of while Congress is funding trillions of dollars of infrastructure and climate programs that Klamath issues could fit into perfectly. There’s a small silver lining: Senators Merkley and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have earmarked $162 million of funding just for restoration in the Klamath Basin in the recent Infrastructure and Investment and Jobs Act. It’s not a comprehensive package of solutions, but it’s the biggest singular federal investment in the basin to-date. And it demonstrates representatives’ abilities to advocate for the watershed.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley speak to Klamath Tribal Council Chairman Don Gentry in Beatty on Aug. 19, 2021, after touring the area damaged by the Bootleg fire as well as both treated and untreated areas of forest.
Merkley said his role as chair of a committee that funds the Department of Interior is “the single best position” he could be in to assist the Klamath Basin, but any broader agreement will still require bipartisan and bicameral support to arrive at the president’s desk. It must be comprehensive, and it must also have overwhelming support from local communities.
“There has to be some vision of a master plan, because if it’s just ad hoc funding — some piping here and some pumps there — it’s not going to make a difference,” Merkley said. “And really, the plan has to come from the community, otherwise there’s no buy-in to it.”
But if a bill does miraculously make it to Congress and, eventually, President Biden’s desk, it has a good chance of getting signed. The White House has made climate and infrastructure two of its top priorities, and the Klamath is right up their alley. Family Farm Alliance President Dan Keppen said he has geared his organization’s push for water infrastructure investments toward those federal initiatives — and it worked with the infrastructure bill.
“I would say a similar focus on a Klamath watershed-wide package — considering those dynamics — would appear to have a greater success now than in the past,” Keppen said. “Unfortunately and understandably, there’s not a lot of trust right now between various Klamath factions, particularly after such a devastating water year. If the key players in the Klamath River watershed can come together, assuming there’s still a ton of federal climate money in the coffers, some sort of long-term, meaningful solution might be reached.”
Several years ago, Merkley, Wyden and then-Representative Walden were able to secure a yearly fund of $10 million to provide yearly drought relief to Klamath Project irrigators, subsidizing idled land or, more controversially, groundwater pumping to reduce demand for surface water. But that same federal generosity hasn’t been regularly extended to tribes or fishing communities, and irrigators fear that, without an agreement, even their funding will stop coming — there’s only so much money the government is willing to spend on Band-Aids.
“That is not a long-term solution,” Merkley said. “In fact, we’re probably making the situation worse by pumping more groundwater.”
“They’re going to quit throwing money at it, I’d imagine, if we keep doing this cycle year after year,” said Tulelake farmer Cody Dodson.
While this is a politically auspicious moment for acquiring federal funding, the current Congress’s days are numbered — and it’s even beginning to struggle to pass spending legislation despite being controlled by a single party. Given how long it took for the KBRA to come to fruition, it’s unlikely (though, not impossible) that Klamath stakeholders would be able to cobble together an agreement in time for this Congress to be able to pass one. And time, unfortunately, is a luxury the climate crisis takes from all of us.
Cody Dodson bales alfalfa on June 21, 2021, in Tulelake, Calif.
“We have great opportunity, and we have a polarized basin,” Hyde said. “If the communities have their act together, then Congress doesn’t have its act together. If Congress is in some place that could have a little bit of reason about the issues that we’re interested in, we’re not ready.”
Even as stakeholders race against accelerating climate-driven impacts to forge a resilient solution, they agree that the Klamath Basin is uniquely positioned to solve its issues. It’s big enough to have water to work with while small enough to be somewhat manageable. There are no major population centers that also demand water, and it’s remote enough that development hasn’t altered its ecosystems quite to the extent it has in other Western river basins, like the Colorado or the Sacramento.
“The Klamath has so much potential for restoration. It could be used as a model, and it could be upscaled or downscaled,” said Barry McCovey, fisheries director for the Yurok Tribe. “If we can do it here, why can’t we take that model and move it to other river basins?”
Merkley said he recognized that potential in securing one of the infrastructure bill’s few place-specific appropriations just for the Klamath. It’s not enough money to replace the KBRA, but if the people of the basin listen to each other and choose the right ways to spend it, the windfall could bring more investments in the future. What is learned from these projects’ successes and failures could show us not only how to save the Klamath, but how to save other watersheds around the world.
“If the Klamath stakeholders can re-enter intense negotiations and build a path to transform the region in which ranching and farming and healthy streams, rivers and lakes can all be addressed, it would be incredible,” Merkley said. “And it would have tremendous support and resources from the federal government.”