The future of agriculture in the Klamath Basin

Words by Alex Schwartz, Photos by Arden Barnes

Herald and News / Report for America

Klamath River

The mouth of the Klamath River near Klamath, Calif., on Sept. 23, 2021.

There are other ways for life to evolve besides competition.

—David Rains Wallace, The Klamath Knot

It had been three years since Brook Thompson caught a salmon.

Growing up on the Yurok Reservation in Klamath, Calif., she used to eat it year-round — canned, smoked, boiled, pattied — benefitting from Chinook salmon’s exceptionally high protein and omega-3 fatty acid content. But the rest of Thompson’s diet consisted of flour, sugar, pasta and the occasional canned fruit or vegetable, all provided by the federal government. There was (and still is) no grocery store in Klamath. The only fresh food comes from the river.

“I didn’t get a lot of good food growing up,” said Thompson, who has Yurok and Karuk ancestry. Doctors even considered her malnourished until she moved to Portland for college. Now in a graduate environmental engineering program at Stanford University, she has access to healthier foods and grocery stores and is able to eat a balanced diet. 

But Thompson said Whole Foods salmon can’t nourish her like the river can. The spiritual practice of catching a salmon near the mouth of the Klamath, cleaning it and putting it on ice can’t be replicated over a fish counter. To her, the fish just taste better at home.

Brooke Thompson with one of her family's fishing boats on the shore of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

Brook Thompson with one of her family’s fishing boats on the bank of the Klamath River near Klamath, Calif., on July 21, 2021.

“Our culture is really energy-based,” Thompson said. “You want to put that good spirit and energy into your food, and you feel that when you eat it. You put that back into yourself. Salmon tastes so bad everywhere else. I don’t know how people like it.”

Beyond nourishing its people, the salmon run can also nourish the economy of the Yurok Reservation, which has a median income of about $11,000. Thompson said a good commercial fishery could allow some tribal members to buy Christmas presents for their relatives, school supplies for their kids and even gas for their cars to be able to get to the nearest grocery store half an hour away in Crescent City. 

Recently, the Yurok commercial fishery processing building at the foot of Requa Hill, along the Klamath’s estuary, has sat empty more often than not. For decades, and especially since 2015, the Klamath River fishery has been in sharp decline. 

Between 2016 and 2020, the annual harvest of fall Chinook salmon has averaged fewer than 5,000 for a tribe that has more than 6,000 members. Between 1989 and 2015, tribal members had caught an average of nearly 24,000 fish a year.

“The fish are kind of the canary in the coal mine. Salmon are telling us that things aren’t working,” said Barry McCovey, the Yurok Tribe’s fisheries director and a Yurok tribal member. “Things haven’t been good for a long time — the system has been disconnected and thrown out of balance for generations — but things have gotten worse exponentially.”

Only in 2019 did enough fish return to the river to allow the tribe to open a commercial fishery. But the run materialized lower than predicted, and the tribe caught only 13% of its targeted commercial take.

McCovey sees a clear distinction between tribes and settlers in the basin in terms of who has been able to make money off its resources.

“Whether it was miners, agriculture, electricity, timber harvest, whatever extractive business went on or is ongoing, they’ve all benefitted and prospered from those extractive activities,” he said. “People made a lot of money, people built homes and ranches and people built generational wealth and did great. But that’s not the case for tribal people in the basin. We didn’t get any of that. We only suffered and sacrificed, and we’ve been suffering and sacrificing for a long time.”

Once the basin’s dominant run, spring Chinook were the first to fall into steep decline. That drop occurred almost in lockstep with the construction of Copco Dam in 1918, which cut off prime spring spawning habitat in the Upper Basin.

By the early 1920s, canneries that had been operating at the mouth of the Klamath began closing in the spring due to a lack of fish. Spring Chinook were largely extirpated from the Scott and Shasta rivers by the mid-20th century. This summer, the remaining populations in the Salmon and Trinity rivers were listed under the California Endangered Species Act. 

Coho followed closely behind, listed as threatened under the federal ESA in 1997. Between 2014 and 2020, the number of returning coho spawners in the Scott and Shasta was less than 1% of the number biologists estimate is required for viability of the species.

These declines have followed land use changes, damming and diversions upriver, but climate change is worsening the situation. Diseases exacerbated by the dams infect more fish and cause more mortality during periods of low, warm water. And the ocean, though less understood, may be providing fewer nutrients and less oxygen when fish leave the freshwater system.

Brooke Thompson assists Amy Cordallis and her father, Bill Bowers, as they fish for salmon using the traditional Yurok tribe technique--gill nets, near the mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

Brook Thompson assists Amy Cordalis and Amy’s father, Bill Bowers, as they fish for salmon near the mouth of the Klamath River on July 21, 2021.

Amy Cordallis and her father, Bill Bowers, fish for salmon using the traditional Yurok tribe technique--gill nets, near the mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

A chinook salmon caught via gillnet sits on the bottom of the boat on July 21, 2021.

In 2014 and 2015, due in part to low flows and high temperatures in the river, severe C. shasta outbreaks killed many baby salmon migrating out to sea. So few of them returned as adults in 2016 and 2017 that there weren’t enough salmon to feed every tribal member, let alone run a commercial fishery. In 2017, the tribe received an allocation of just 650 fish, the lowest since records began in 1978. 

Around the same time, seven Yuroks died by suicide in an 18-month span, a cluster linked in part to the declining health of the Klamath. 

“When you’re not participating in those tribal activities where you’re fishing, you’re getting out there exercising, spending time with your family and culture … you go into depression,” Thompson said. “It’s not just the food aspect — really, every part of our life is dependent on the salmon.”

Every year, Thompson stocks up on jars of canned and smoked salmon caught by her friends and relatives on the river, but diminishing runs mean they’ve been harder to come by recently. Now, each time she thinks about opening one, she wonders whether it’d be better to save it in case the fish stop coming.

“You get a scarcity mindset. There’s not enough for ceremonies, there’s not enough for elders, there’s hardly enough for ourselves,” Thompson said. “I never want to open them, because I’m like, ‘What if this is the last time I’m opening this jar of salmon?’”

‘Sunbaked prairies, worthless swamps’

Discussions about water in the Klamath Basin tend to boil down to arguments about how the system worked naturally: Would river flows or lake levels be this high in a drought if the system had not been modified?

But the Klamath is no longer a natural system, and its Native and non-Native food sources exist on unequal footing. 

Though they both sustain entire communities, economies and cultures, fish — not farms — are endemic to the watershed. As the massive Lake Modoc drained and dried up at the end of the last Ice Age, sucker populations borne of a common ancestor in the Great Basin’s inland seas segmented into the nutrient-rich shallow lakes and rivers left behind.

Tules, cattails, wocus and other wetland plants slowly sprung up along the lakes’ flooding and receding shorelines. Salmon, once blocked by ancient lava dams near the Klamath River Canyon, breached the Upper Basin’s reliable coldwater springs and wetland nurseries. The basin that early Euro-Americans encountered took thousands of years to materialize.

The Upper Basin was a venerable oasis in the dry shadow of the Cascades, which early European explorers and fur trappers dubbed the “land of the lakes.” But the federal government (and irrigators hoping to work the land for crops) saw the wealth of water as a nuisance. A 1957 Bureau of Reclamation report on the progress of the Klamath Project didn’t hide its disdain for the basin’s original state, saying the agency had successfully converted the “sunbaked prairie and worthless swamps” into a thriving irrigation project.

The hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands and shallow lakes that preceded the Klamath Project did not gradually dry up into an intricate grid of fields, canals and pumps all on their own. Water did not naturally stay out of these lands during the wet season and enter them in the dry season, nor did evolution lead alfalfa, grain, potatoes and onions to sort themselves neatly into rectangular plots. People did not spend thousands of years developing deep knowledge of and relationships with these living, but managed, landscapes.

Tribes throughout the basin certainly did not leave its ecosystems untouched prior to colonization. Over millennia, they developed the technology and expertise to build weirs to trap fish, burn forests to create habitat for ungulates and strategically tend to plants for food and medicine. But modern agriculture, as we know it, is a brand-new import: On an evolutionary timescale, 150 years is the blink of an eye.

At the same time, consistently denying water to the project has led to serious environmental consequences that can’t be overlooked. The starkest impacts have occurred on Tule Lake and Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges, some of the oldest in the country, which are the final remnants of the basin’s vast wetlands.

Cody Dodson walks through his cut alfalfa, which is ready to be baled, on June 21, 2021, in Tulelake, Calif.

Cody Dodson walks through his field of cut alfalfa on June 21, 2021, in Tulelake, Calif. Dodson’s family has been farming since the homestead era.

For more than 20 years (even in wet periods), the refuges haven’t received enough annual water to provide habitat and food for migrating waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors. Birds that haven’t succumbed to epic late-summer botulism outbreaks on the refuges in low water years have begun to fly away: Peak migration counts have fallen by 80% in the past 60 years. The collapse of these precious wetlands could lead to the downfall of the whole Pacific Flyway.

Project fields and canals also provide habitat and food to hundreds of species of birds and amphibians, which have adapted to human infrastructure over the last 150 years. This year, farmers have lamented the sad silence of a mostly dry project, where bullfrogs no longer bellow at night and otters no longer splash in flooded ditches. 

And the Klamath Project can produce potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in income for the basin when it has an adequate water supply, sending high quality alfalfa, potatoes, onions, mint, grain and more around the country and the world. Agricultural economists are still trying to get a handle on how 2021’s drop in production will affect the financial situations of farmers, ag suppliers and local businesses.

A recurring advertisement in the Klamath Falls Evening Herald during the spring of 1908 attempted to entice local farmers to work the newly minted (and exponentially growing) federal Reclamation project in their midst. It reported that existing growers had already found success with vegetables like asparagus, onions, celery and especially sugar beets. Potatoes were produced “in great abundance,” and even fruit tree orchards had popped up throughout the basin’s foothills.

Two types of soils existed in the project. The sandier upland soils, once the fluctuating shores of Lake Modoc, contained a nutrient-packed mix of erupted ash and eroded lava along with decomposed organic matter from the ancient inland sea. Wetlands that had already been reclaimed had even richer peat soils, containing “a vegetable accumulation of ages.”

The ad called the basin’s soil “characteristic of many of the richest agricultural sections of the world.” Indeed, it’s still compared to the grounds of the Nile and Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent — areas that also contained vast wetlands and floodplains where organic matter had accumulated over millennia. The climate was “extremely healthful and not severe,” with minimal winter extremes and near-constant summer sun that fueled a short — but sweet — growing season.

The ad stressed the need for “the right kind of people” to help shape the basin’s agricultural future: smart farmers with practical know-how, who could intensively farm a diverse crop and who would buy the land not as an investment, but as a homestead.

“Such men are bound to succeed,” the ad stated. “There is room for thousands of them.”

The toll of the last 20 years on the people who answered the federal government’s call is real, too.

Hundreds of family farms have gone out of business, and the small communities dotting the project may very well become ghost towns if nothing changes. Real people whose grandparents were promised a home and a livelihood feel betrayed by the federal government. They are struggling to scrape together enough money to pay the bills while their once productive farmlands sit idle and desolate.

For everyone in the Klamath Basin, but especially the people, birds, tubers and grasses who depend on water flowing into the A Canal every summer, a repeat of 2021 means more farmers folding and more birds fleeing until it’s all gone. But as snowpacks shrink faster and summers broil hotter into the coming decades, years without enough water to go around will become less the outliers and more the norm — unless the Klamath can find uses for water that satisfy multiple objectives.

Unlike other Reclamation projects that attempted to move water over vast distances to improve less-valuable farmland, the Klamath Project was largely constructed to drain water. Link River Dam didn’t do much to increase storage in Upper Klamath Lake beyond controlling its natural fluctuations and allowing operators to take its level down an extra few feet. Clear Lake Reservoir was built to evaporate water and facilitate the drainage and cultivation of its outlet, Tule Lake. However, the 1908 ad did report that, while half the proposed project acreage was under feet of water and wetlands, the other half was covered in sagebrush.

Still, farmers assert that the project isn’t a big enough draw on the system to deserve its current level of regulation. Before irrigation curtailments, the project used around 3% of the total amount of water that exited the mouth of the Klamath each year. To project irrigators, the federal government is using water — originally promised to them — to satisfy environmental requirements that haven’t done much to improve ecosystems over the past 20 years

But the project’s creation facilitated the destruction of an inconceivable area of productive ecosystems that once provided habitat and water quality benefits for the Klamath Basin’s original food source: fish. And following off-project blows to the system like the construction of downriver dams, nutrient loading into Upper Klamath Lake and excessive agricultural diversions on key tributaries to the Klamath River storage for the project has become the only significant source of water the federal government can use to keep fish populations on life support. But if landscapes aren’t healing, nobody’s winning.

Nearly 120 years after the project’s creation, we are realizing that the “worthless swamps” it reclaimed may not have been so worthless after all.

From the watershed’s perspective, the Klamath Project — and all the basin’s parched wetlands that now grow rows of potatoes, hay and horseradish in place of tules, fish and ducks — is less a choke point than a disconnected vital organ. All on its own, this place once filtered and slowly released billions of gallons of water from the desert to the ocean, sustained hundreds of species in a floating jungle and gave rise to civilizations whose petroglyphs sit high up on volcanic outcroppings that were once islands in a vast inland sea.

Project irrigators consistently call for replacing ESA-driven, single-species management with ecosystem management in the basin. But that won’t be possible if the project — now an economic and agricultural powerhouse — remains carved up and segregated from the rest of the system.

Instead, what if the humans who live in the footprints of those former wetlands could help bring them back to life? What if they could mimic the project’s ancient role as the liver and kidneys of the basin?

Some say that if water needs to always flow here, it needs to flow out, too — and it must benefit more than just farmers if the land is to remain viable in the future. There’s just not enough water in the system for farms and ecosystems to receive separate allocations. Reintegrating these two objectives could keep everyone whole, even in drought.

To serve the proverbial plate of salmon and potatoes, of smoked suckers and beef, the lines between land and water have to blur on farms and ranches throughout the basin.

And in the Klamath Project, they’ve already started to.

For the birds … and the farms

Marshall Staunton, a retired farmer from Tulelake, once visited an environmentalist friend who lived in Eugene. She took him up to Spencer Butte to look out over the city, where the Willamette River once meandered through a valley of camas fields and a Kalapuyan village. That history was unrecognizable, however, as the city splayed out below him — an expanse of asphalt, buildings and bridges. He remembers the view being beautiful.

Several days later, Staunton took his friend up to Sheepy Peak, which separates the Tule Lake Basin from the Lower Klamath Lake Basin. Gazing out over the grid of wetland units and agricultural lease lands on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, and the canals and fields of Klamath Drainage District to the north, he explained how the entire area used to be covered by a massive, shallow lake. His friend was disappointed.

“It’s just so sad that they’ve destroyed nature,” Staunton remembered her saying. He was surprised — hadn’t they just looked out over a city that completely masked the natural environment upon which it was built?

Marshall Staunton pets his dog, Shanti, on Oct. 14, 2021.

Marshall Staunton pets his dog, Shanti, on Oct. 14, 2021.

“It still sticks in my craw,” Staunton said. “You’re going to gasp at my valley because you can see nature and what it used to be? We haven’t destroyed it so badly that you can’t see it.”

Staunton has worked to reconcile the Klamath Project’s agricultural promise with the wholesale destruction of wetlands that created it. His grandfather Webb gave up stockbroking back east in the early 1920s to homestead off of Hill Road and run a duck hunting lodge. Now his nephew, Marc, runs Staunton Farms, one of the larger potato operations in the basin.

Marshall Staunton helped sustain a partnership between project farmers and the wildlife refuges, which are hooked up to the project’s plumbing and depend on it for water. Agricultural lease lands — areas of the refuge where farming is allowed, as long as it aligns with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s goals to provide food and habitat for migrating birds — made up about 22,000 acres of Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges by the mid-20th century. In exchange for the use of that rich, coveted ground, farmers leasing those lands agreed to leave a certain percentage of their crops in the field as bird food. 

But over time, the soil’s bounty faded. While producers increased chemical inputs to retain crop yields, the wetland units on the refuges proper remained stagnant, stunting aquatic plant growth. The solution, as it turned out, was to integrate the two practices.

In the 1990s, a lease land plot on Tule Lake Refuge became so infested with nematodes that almost no chemicals could get rid of them. Agricultural researchers from the Intermountain Research and Extension Center in Tulelake had found some success with leaving infested fields fallow, but Fish and Wildlife wanted to see if flooding the field would work instead. 

The Service hoped the land could provide waterfowl habitat while simultaneously killing pests, and the advisory committee governing the leaselands (which included Staunton) was all for it.

“We agreed, ‘Hey, let’s try flooding it,’” Staunton said.

Tulelake Refuge Tour looking for birds with Botulism. Sept. 15, 2021.

John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, checks a bird for signs of avian botulism on Sept. 15, 2021.

Staunton and his brothers were the first to lease that field after the Service had inundated it for several years, and they planted potatoes in the drawn-down wetland. Many farmers were skeptical, but Staunton said it turned out to be one of the most productive fields he’d ever worked on.

“We had never seen a yield like that,” Staunton said. The temporary restoration of a sliver of old Tule Lake had largely eliminated pests and disease, greatly reduced the need for chemical inputs and boosted the quality and quantity of potatoes.

Just two or three years of mimicking a wetland had revived the field’s very soils, while also providing crucial habitat for waterfowl. Staunton said he spoke so highly of the arrangement that, by the time his family’s lease was up, someone else had put in a higher bid on that ground.

“I bragged it up left and right, and of course we lost the lease,” Staunton said. “My brothers wouldn’t talk to me for a month or two.”

Following that success, Fish and Wildlife began implementing the Walking Wetlands program throughout the refuges, temporarily flooding as much as 1,200 field acres for between one and four years at a time. Because of their lower disease and pest levels, the drained fields became especially popular among organic farmers. 

Farmers in the program had so much success that Walking Wetlands started to pop up on private ground outside the refuge as a kind of mobile soil revitalization service. Farmers who took a field out of production and turned it into a wetland could farm an equivalent acreage on the refuge’s sharecrop lands, where they’d leave a quarter to a third of their grain in the field for migrating birds.

But dry years have stunted this process, with the refuges receiving little to no water during Klamath Project curtailments. Farmers and birds have lost out.

“It was huge. People were really liking it,” said John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “But now it’s falling off the table.”

To keep the practice going, conservation groups have begun to work with irrigators on private lands with more reliable access to water. This spring, the Klamath Basin Farming and Wetland Collaborative, led by waterfowl conservation group Ducks Unlimited, received a $3.8 million grant to help pay farmers to turn their own fields into wetlands or leave behind some of their grain.

Most of those projects will focus on land in Klamath Drainage District, where many producers already irrigate in the fall and winter, when water is less in demand. The district also has a state water right permit separate from the Klamath Project, which they used to divert about 33,000 acre-feet from the Klamath River this summer — these were the only fields in the project irrigated with surface water originating in Upper Klamath Lake.

The situation is much different on the adjacent Lower Klamath Refuge, which received only a pittance of water this summer. Despite its wetlands predating the very existence of the United States, it has the lowest-priority water right in the project. Chris Colson, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said this program should be enough to replace up to 30% of the loss in food production caused by chronic lack of water on the refuge.

“It’s the recognition that birds don’t care,” Colson said. “Ultimately it’s not about saving the refuge necessarily — it’s about providing for waterfowl. We haven’t stopped working on the refuge, but we recognize that we need to work with the irrigators if we want to continue to meet our waterfowl objectives.”

Staunton envisions a more permanent expansion of Walking Wetlands throughout private lands in the project: Farmers could enter into contracts with Fish and Wildlife to take a portion of their land out of production for compensation, flooding it in wet years and fallowing it in dry ones. It would be similar to a conservation easement, only producers would be able to rotate the wetland throughout their ground to get the agricultural benefits. 

“If it’s one sixth of your farm and it moved around, it wouldn’t matter because you just factored it into your rotation,” Staunton said.

Wet years would allow the network of flooded fields to recharge groundwater and provide waterfowl habitat, while dry ones would concentrate most of that onto the refuges. But it would all require a reliable project irrigation supply to work.

“You’re much more willing to experiment if you know that things are going to be OK,” said Tulelake Farmer Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. “But why do I want to continue to make those kinds of investments if I don’t know if I’m going to have water next year?”

Many project farmers care deeply about where they live and want to help the species they share the basin with. Tulelake Irrigation District, for example, used pumps and even a helicopter to consolidate all the water on Tule Lake Refuge into a healthier wetland unit to reduce the risk of avian botulism this summer. Aided by an additional infusion of water from Reclamation and abundant wildfire smoke, they succeeded — refuge biologists remarkably recorded zero cases of botulism this year.

The sun sets behind a snow covered peak at Crater Lake National Park on Oct. 16, 2021.

Hundreds of waterfowl fly over Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge with the Peninsula in the distance on Sept. 15, 2021.

John Duwe stands next to a Mountain Hemlock covered in lichen on Oct. 5, 2021. The line where the lichen stops growing is typically the height of the average snowpack at Crater Lake.

Caroline Brady, California Waterfowl Association’s waterfowl programs supervisor, places a band on a duck’s leg on Aug. 18, 2021.

Staunton thinks punishing farmers for the federal government’s sins isn’t helping anybody. He said programs like Walking Wetlands, which provide financial and environmental benefits through reintegrating agriculture into the landscape, are better ways to protect species than the regulatory hammer wrought by legislation like the Endangered Species Act. The trick would be coming up with ways to farm cooperatively with the basin’s imperiled fish as well as its birds.

“It would’ve been a lot better if the ESA was set up so that those that are in the best habitat would be incentivized to take care of that habitat,” Staunton said. “Let’s not make a critical habitat where you’re scared to death of being in critical habitat — let’s make it so that if you can still support wolves, bears, C’waam and Koptu, you’re going to get some reward for that.”

Weaving agricultural lands back into the environment of the basin is a tricky task but not an impossible one. As Staunton saw from the top of Sheepy Peak, this land — though carved, drained and altered forever — is not past hope.

Sushi in a field: Rice, salmon and birds in the Sacramento Valley

California’s Central Valley is the Upper Klamath Basin on steroids.

Over a relatively short period of time at the beginning of the last century, Reclamation and the state of California carved the 20,000 square-mile bowl of wetlands between the Coast ranges and the Sierra Nevada into a dizzyingly complicated system of reservoirs, dikes and canals. 

Developing the valley turned the state into a near-$50 billion a year agricultural engine and protected cities like Sacramento from destructive flooding. But the region’s fish and wildlife suffered. Four distinct salmon runs, which historically swam up the Sacramento River from fall through spring, are listed in some way under the Endangered Species Act. With 95% of wetlands in the valley drained, millions of waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway lost their wintering grounds, too.

Several decades ago, a coalition of conservation groups, government agencies, water management districts, agricultural organizations and sporting groups that had previously battled in court over requirements for the species decided to work together to save them. They were able to integrate birds into irrigated landscapes, but salmon populations continued to decline.

Sacramento Valley, California on Aug. 13, 2021.

Jacob Katz, senior scientist with CalTrout, and Jeff McCreary, director of operations for Ducks Unlimited’s western region, look out over the Yolo Bypass in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 13, 2021.

Guided by fish biologists from the University of California Davis and California Trout, the groups have since forged a solution that could benefit everyone by mimicking the natural system: adding baby salmon to the mix.

The coalition is focusing on bypasses — huge areas adjacent to the river’s levees that could take on excess water during flood periods. The river (and the baby salmon it carried) historically spread out for miles past its banks almost yearly, but flood control infrastructure later kept more water in the river during the wet season to allow farming to occur on those former floodplains. 

Only in exceptionally wet years does the river spread out into the bypasses, slowing water down and providing occasional habitat for wintering birds. The only reliable year-round water supply is applied to rice fields in the bypasses every spring and left as wetland habitat for ducks and geese in the fall and winter.

Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District 108, a flood control and irrigation district adjacent to the river, said the goal is to reactivate those floodplains in a way that reintroduces fish to their historic habitats more frequently without eliminating rice from the landscape. 

“We’re realizing that we want more of those environmental services from the floodplains, and the good part of the story is we can actually do that and still farm,” Bair said.

Jacob Katz, senior scientist with CalTrout, said baby salmon traveling from spawning grounds to the sea don’t do well in rivers alone — they originally used the miles of shallow wetlands produced by the swelling river to seek shelter from predators and gorge themselves on plankton. In contrast, the channelized river flushes them out to San Francisco Bay before they can bulk up, putting them at a disadvantage for survival in the ocean.

“That shift in our management mentality that says that working landscapes can work for both people and the environment has yet to be truly applied to fish,” Katz said. “We want to get as many fish as possible out of that river and into different kinds of wetland habitat in as many places within the valley as possible.”

Rice fields, as it turns out, are great at growing the food baby salmon need. After harvest, the remaining straw decomposes in the shallow water of the field. The California sun warms the nutrient-rich water, producing algae. Zooplankton then feed on the algae, turning the managed wetland into a salmon buffet. A UC Davis analysis found that the floodplain water contained 149 times more of those aquatic bugs than the river itself.

Sacramento Valley, California on Aug. 13, 2021.

A rice field in the Sacramento River Valley on Aug. 13, 2021.

The 2012 pilot study, named the Nigiri Project after its harmony of fish and rice, put 10,000 hatchery salmon in a protected corner of a flooded rice field in the Yolo Bypass west of Sacramento. In six weeks, most of the fish grew five-fold — some of the highest growth rates recorded in the watershed. 

Last March, the California Rice Commission released 350 rice-grown baby salmon fitted with tracking tags to see whether the “floodplain fatties,” as they’re called, had a better chance of making it to the ocean. In a severe drought year when almost no salmon survived the journey, 4.5% of the test group made it — a considerable success given the circumstances.

“It gets kind of exciting when you think about the potential,” said Paul Buttner, manager of environmental affairs for the California Rice Commission.

Steve Neader stands in his rice field in the Sacramento Valley’s Sutter Bypass

Steve Neader stands in his rice field in the Sacramento Valley’s Sutter Bypass on Aug. 13, 2021. In the winter, a section of the field will be part of a pilot project to grow baby salmon. “I thought, you know, why not?” Neader said. “If we can help, it’s not really that hard for us to do it. It’s just a little monitoring and drilling some holes.”

Stakeholders are still testing how to scale up the practice by improving connectivity between rice field infrastructure and drainages back into the river. Down the road, they hope to facilitate a more regular influx of fish into the bypasses by modifying weirs to divert water from the river even when it’s not flooding. And as a bonus, keeping more water on the floodplains for longer will help recharge the valley’s depleted groundwater supply.

The goal is to move away from using hatchery fish and allow wild fish to detour through the mimicked floodplains when farmers aren’t using them, all without being touched by humans. On rice fields outside the bypass, the coalition is also building infrastructure to allow that prime salmon food to be pumped back into the river. 

If the philosophy becomes successful on a wider scale, you could very well order a spicy salmon roll at a sushi restaurant whose fish and rice have reunited, years after a decomposing rice field nourished the salmon in its youth. It’s giving a whole new meaning to farmed fish.

For Katz, the efforts reintegrate the Sacramento River’s species in a way that includes humans not as overlords, but as humble participants.

“If we integrate ourselves into a functioning tapestry, we end up with a different set of outcomes,” he said. “That’s the part that’s really cool.”

Jeff McCreary, director of operations for Ducks Unlimited’s western region, sees no reason why this kind of thinking can’t be applied 300 miles north. If the massive Sacramento Valley, with its endless environmental modifications and highly litigious stakeholder groups, can come together outside of a courtroom to cooperate on projects targeting the holistic health of the watershed, why can’t the Klamath Basin?

“You’ve got the same ingredients: people, wetlands, waterfowl and fish are all using the same landscape, but how they’re using the landscape is not compatible with each other,” McCreary said. “This is a demonstration of how we can do things differently.”

When the dike broke

On an afternoon in early June, 2006, Upper Klamath Lake began to reclaim itself. An especially wet year had swelled its tributaries, and by late April the lake hit full pool above 4,143 feet in elevation. There was nowhere for the water to go but out.

PacifiCorp crews observed cracks in a dike that separated Caledonia Marsh, a 2,000-acre cluster of wetlands-turned-farms on the western shore of the lake near Running Y Ranch, from the lake itself.

Overwhelmed by the pressure of the lake, a chunk of the dike began to sink. By that evening, the farmland lay under four feet of water. The flooding was a serious nuisance: It closed adjacent Highway 140 and flooded several holes of the Running Y golf course. A farmer leasing 1,600 acres of the land lost a crop and some equipment.

But as time wore on, it may have also provided a glimpse into the future restoration of Upper Klamath Lake.

What is now the Running Y was settled as early as 1866, and ranchers later purchased the adjacent Wocus and Caledonia marshes to use as grazing land in the summer and fall. Having drained much of Wocus Marsh in 1897 to allow cattle to access more of the area, brothers Eugene and Frank McCornack began constructing a dike in 1914 to cut Caledonia Marsh off from the lake and facilitate its drainage. 

Four years later, the dried-up peat flat had been purchased by four brothers of the Geary family, who constructed irrigation and drainage canals to allow farming. For much of the 20th century, the same thing happened at wetland complexes throughout Upper Klamath Lake’s perimeter.

U.S. Geological Survey studies in the late 1990s estimate that, in its natural state, Upper Klamath Lake fluctuated between 67,720 acres in total area at its minimum level and 111,510 acres at its maximum level. Fringe wetlands surrounding the lake made up between 30% of that area in the dry season and 46.2% in the wet season. 

But between the late 1880s and early 1970s, development eliminated more than 35,000 acres of wetland in and around the lake — or roughly 70% of what existed naturally — through diking and draining areas like Caledonia Marsh. Recent restoration projects, like the Wood River Wetland and Williamson River Delta, have made a small dent in that loss.

Though the construction of Link River Dam in 1921 raised the level of the lake slightly and now allows the Bureau of Reclamation to store water in the lake at times when it wouldn’t naturally be there, the shoreline was reduced so much that its current total area and volume is 31.5% lower than it was naturally.

Beyond helping the lake store and release water gradually across seasons, wetlands also took in nutrients from naturally eroded sediment flowing into the lake, provided rearing habitat for juvenile C’waam and Koptu and, through their constant decomposition, suppressed the growth of the algal monocultures that dominate the lake today.

Naturally eutrophic Upper Klamath Lake was never known for being pristine, even before intensive development, but it currently struggles with the wrong kind of low water quality. Wetlands around and above the lake were constantly senescing and decomposing, releasing tannin-rich dissolved organic matter that turned the water a dark brown color for most of the spring and summer. But because of the current nutrient imbalance and the dominance of algae, the brown water now turns green every summer. In essence, the water is the wrong kind of “gross” for the suckers.

In 2006, managers ended up leaving Caledonia Marsh flooded until the following year.

Bill Tinniswood, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said what they saw that summer was unique: The marsh’s peatland soils, in contact with the lake for the first time in 90 years, created a coffee-colored patch in a sea of green.

“It never turned green,” Tinniswood said. “The whole summer, it stayed dark black.”

The Running Y ended up fixing the levee in 2007, re-draining the marsh and reverting it back to farmland. That summer, biologists were sent in to salvage any fish that may have entered the area from the lake. They found 1,400 young suckers, most between 1 and 2 years old. Many were infested with parasites, but almost all were alive.

“It was the highest catch that we’ve ever had by far,” Tinniswood said. “We sampled them in the worst conditions possible and they were still living.”

A 2009 USGS study found that, though phosphorus levels increased in the marsh after being released from its peat soils, the presence of millions of years worth of decayed wetland plants meant that “a proportional increase in algal biomass was not measured either in the marsh or in the adjacent bay of the lake.” The flooded land had essentially neutralized the threat of algae and become a refuge for fish. 

But the dike had already been fixed, and Caledonia Marsh returned to farmland. Tinniswood wishes agencies had purchased the property and kept it flooded.

“It just went away,” he said. “No one even tried to replicate that again.”

In 2011, Reclamation evaluated various additional water storage options for Klamath Project operations. It conceptualized Caledonia Marsh as essentially a reservoir adjacent to Upper Klamath Lake, which could store additional water — up to 21,500 acre-feet a year — for use in the project and for downriver flows. But it wouldn’t have been truly connected to the lake: The Bureau would have expressly prevented fish from entering the flooded area, using it only for water storage.

Additionally, the level of the lake dropped as much as three inches when the marsh flooded, creating potential issues for meeting ESA-required water levels in the future.

But Tinniswood thinks a more intentional flooding of Caledonia could be part of a solution for the problems suckers face in Upper Klamath Lake. Even if nutrient loading into the lake were to stop immediately, it would still take decades for water quality to rebound — for the short term, at least, the fish need more areas of refuge when the lake turns toxic.

Caledonia’s accidental flooding may not have been a formal proof of concept for Sacramento-style, multi-species benefit farming in the basin, but it may have been a cue from nature that a similar kind of thinking is needed here.

“That might be the solution right there,” Tinniswood said. “You just basically tell the farmers: ‘You guys grow some suckers.’”

As it turns out, Fish and Wildlife already has plans to reconnect several large, previously reclaimed wetland units back to the lake. According to a draft environmental assessment released this summer, the Service hopes to breach levees that currently separate the Barnes and Agency Lake units of Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge from the northwestern shore of Upper Klamath Lake and the adjacent, connected Agency Lake. 

Originally diked and drained by Reclamation beginning in the 1940s, Barnes and Agency Lake ranches hosted grazing cattle during the summers and pumped water to flood-irrigate pasture in the winters. Reclamation then purchased the plots in 1998 for water storage areas, allowing nearby creeks to flood them during the winter and pumping the water into the lake in the spring. 

However, pumping costs proved too much for Klamath Project irrigators, and Reclamation abandoned the storage operation in 2013, transferring the land to Fish and Wildlife. Since then, the former ranches have been seasonally flooded to produce emergent wetland habitat for bird species.

The Service hopes to reconnect approximately 14,000 acres of wetland habitat to the lake for use by birds, fish and other aquatic species. It would also increase the amount of water stored in Upper Klamath Lake by 73,000 acre-feet. By keeping much of the levees in place, only breaching them at certain channels and engineering a treatment wetland, the project is expected to provide water quality refugia for C’waam and Koptu during the most stressful periods of late summer without expelling a massive amount of phosphorus into the lake.

“There will be areas in there that will be very suitable for the juvenile suckers,” said Stan Swerdloff, aquatics director for the Klamath Tribes.

Both the Klamath Tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are engaged in their own hatchery operations to maintain the genetic stock of C’waam and Koptu, but John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, wonders if that can’t be integrated with the wetlands that dot the project footprint.

“If you have these walking wetlands, why not capitalize on the water?” Vradenburg said. “I think it’d be super cool, but it’d definitely take a lot of buy-in.”

Staunton thinks it’s possible, tested first on the lake’s reclaimed fringe wetlands owned by willing farmers and ranchers, and potentially on the wildlife refuges. Only certain plots in the project’s private land could work, and there would need to be a more reliable water supply to keep the wetlands wet.

“I think it’s a win-win,” he said.

Alex Gonyaw, senior fish biologist for the Klamath Tribes, said he’d be willing to experiment with that approach, too.

“If it’s ag land already, it’s really difficult to turn back into wetlands. If we can get an economic benefit while also helping to fix the problem, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with that,” he said. “If it’s going to be farmed anyway, why don’t we do something good in addition? We’ve been farming for 14,000 years — I think we could figure out how to do this.”

Keeping it local

Sweet Union Farm is the definition of small but mighty. Though it spans less than two acres, hundreds of people in Klamath Falls eat vegetables grown here almost every day.

Katie Swanson knows the menagerie of crop beds and tunnels sitting behind her house on South Sixth Street looks more like a highly involved garden than a farm. But she works hard enough and sells enough food to make this more than just a side hustle. It’s a full-time job.

Katie Swanson works on her farm, Sweet Union, on Aug. 26, 2021.

Katie Swanson works on her farm, Sweet Union, on Aug. 26, 2021.

“I have a very commercial focus, but it’s just on a tiny scale,” Swanson said.

Swanson, a former Spanish teacher from Boring, Oregon, began spending summers working on a vegetable farm in Portland. There she learned how to care for plants and provide the environment they needed to grow. She moved to Klamath Falls six years ago and started Sweet Union shortly thereafter, eager to help develop an equitable, robust local food system.

Early this August, Sweet Union was bursting with a rainbow of vegetables: yellow, purple and green pole beans, red chili peppers, sea-green kale, green onions, indigo eggplants, cucumbers, broccolini, striped delicata squash. Tunnels shaded a forest of slowly ripening tomatoes and too many types of lettuce to count. Sunset-colored rows of marigold and nasturtium bloomed along the edges, attracting pollinators while repelling unwanted pests.

Katie Swanson works on her farm, Sweet Union, on Aug. 26, 2021.

Swanson binds a bunch of Thai basil with a rubber band on Aug. 26, 2021.

All in all, Swanson grows more than 50 different crops with more than 100 different varieties. She said the multiplicity keeps the farm healthy and viable: If one crop fails, she has 49 others still growing. She doesn’t keep all her eggs in one basket.

“I think I’m able to mimic nature a little bit more easily because I have a lot of diversity,” Swanson said. “When something happens to one thing in the ecosystem, the rest of the things in the ecosystem can adapt and work around it.”

Swanson has also been able to keep her soil remarkably healthy. She doesn’t till the sandy loam before planting, keeping beneficial moisture, nutrients and friendly microorganisms locked in. She also uses compost as fertilizer, fueling an ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and insects that break down organic material into compounds that crops can absorb. That’s allowed her to farm with less water and no chemical inputs, though her crops aren’t certified organic.

Conventional agricultural practices tend to deplete soils of their nutrients, requiring farmers to replace them with synthetic fertilizers. But since Swanson started Sweet Union five years ago, the percentage of organic matter in her backyard’s soil has actually increased. A few years ago, she developed new beds to expand the farm and planted kale on both the new and existing plots. The crop on the plot she’d been farming for two years grew almost twice as big as the one on the new bed.

“I was so excited, because that means I’m improving the soil by growing in it,” she said.

Swanson has never farmed any other way, so she doesn’t know whether her yields would be higher if she added chemical fertilizer or used pesticides and herbicides. But she thinks the health of her soils, and the amount of people she’s able to feed with such a small plot of land, speak for themselves.

“I believe pretty strongly that I’m not giving up anything,” she said. “What it requires is more labor.”

Katie Swanson helps Jennifer Spicher carry almost 40 pounds of tomatoes to her car during Katie Swanson's CSA pickup on Sept. 16, 2021, in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Spicher plans to use the tomatoes for canning.

Katie Swanson helps Jennifer Spicher carry almost 40 pounds of tomatoes to her car during CSA pickup on Sept. 16, 2021. Spicher plans to use the tomatoes for canning.

Jazzalyn Smith, right, and Hakeem Broomfield pick up their produce during Katie Swanson's CSA pickup on Sept. 16, 2021, in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Jazzalyn Smith, right, and Hakeem Broomfield pick up their CSA box from Katie Swanson on Sept. 16, 2021.

Sweet Union provides community-supported agriculture subscriptions to 70 households in Klamath Falls each week from late May through mid-October. For about $20 per week, participants get vegetable boxes that morph from the alliums and greens of late spring, to summer zucchini and tomatoes, to the squashes and tubers of early fall. 

Swanson also sends lettuce to Klamath County School District cafeterias and sells crops through the Klamath Farmers Online Marketplace, which she and two other Klamath producers founded as a way to connect consumers with local people growing and preparing food on a small scale. Her vegetables are also served at local restaurants like A Leap of Taste and Terra Veg Vegan Eatery.

Swanson is also involved in a pilot program with Klamath Tribal Health and Family Services called VeggieRx. Tribal Health purchased 20 CSA boxes and “prescribed” them to prediabetic and diabetic patients to give them access to healthier food.

Katie Swanson works on her farm, Sweet Union, on Aug. 26, 2021.

Swanson collects a rainbow of peppers on her farm on Aug. 26, 2021.

“We need more farmers like Katie,” said Liz Arraj, the chef at Terra Veg.

Not considering the efficiency gained from scaling up her operation, Swanson calculates that she’d be able to feed the entire population of Klamath Falls if Sweet Union expanded to just 200 acres. She’s constantly on the hunt for land and personnel to grow the farm — currently, her only regular employee is Katie Marascio, an apprentice through the Rogue Farm Corps.

“Three acres of what I’m doing produces a lot of food, so I think it’s important to recognize the potential there,” Swanson said.

Farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin produce millions of dollars worth of agricultural products a year and sustain thousands of people’s livelihoods, but the average basin resident doesn’t see that reflected on their dinner plate. They may indirectly eat a Malin-grown potato in a bag of Kettle brand chips or sip on a cup of Bigelow mint tea that began part of its life in Tulelake, but the majority of food grown commercially here ends up leaving the watershed. Most Saturdays, you can count the number of local produce stands at the Klamath Falls Farmers Market on one hand. 

That’s not to say most basin producers don’t want to feed their neighbors; they’re just plugged into an export-oriented global food system. No entity exists that can reliably align the supply of crops produced by large-scale farms with local demand.

Elizabeth Arraj, owner and chef of Terra Veg Vegan Eatery, preps for the day on Aug. 24, 2021.

Liz Arraj, owner and chef of Terra Veg Vegan Eatery, preps for the day on Aug. 24, 2021. She regularly receives vegetables from Sweet Union Farm.

Swanson hopes to change that through Klamath Grown, what she calls a “middleman for the local food economy” that would handle the distribution and promotion of food produced in the Upper Klamath Basin to its own residents. She’s already had interest from some conventional growers in the Klamath Project.

“There are larger scale producers that just believe in the vision of Klamath Grown that are excited to be a part of it,” Swanson said.

Sweet Union Farm occupies a unique spot in the Klamath Basin water crisis, and Swanson doesn’t consider herself as impacted as producers in the rest of the Klamath Project. Her property is part of Enterprise Irrigation District, which delivers water through pipes to mostly residential customers on the outskirts of Klamath Falls. 

This year, the pipes stayed dry, and Swanson had to make other arrangements to water her crops. Still, compared to a conventional crop, her soil practices allow her to use much less water, which she delivers to each plant through a highly efficient drip irrigation system.

Elizabeth Arraj, owner and chef of Terra Veg Vegan Eatery, preps for the day on Aug. 24, 2021.

Arraj, left, sorts and unpacks vegetables delivered that morning by Swanson, right, on Aug. 24, 2021.

Swanson believes there’s an opportunity to do something unprecedented in the Klamath Basin: Feed ourselves while restoring the original functions of these lands. Scaling up her practices and keeping things local could help farmers adapt to a future with a less reliable water supply and combat food insecurity within the basin, but the restoration of Indigenous foods — from salmon to suckers to acorns — is crucial, too.

“Respecting the cumulative wisdom of the tribes here is going to be extremely important,” she said.

To Swanson, the diversity of Sweet Union’s crops and the regenerative practices used to grow them take cues from nature that some of the larger conventional operations in her midst could follow, too. She still needs a reliable irrigation supply — especially if she wants to expand — but a drop of water goes incredibly far here, and the fruits of her labor show up directly on her neighbors’ plates.

“It’s not very efficient, but in some ways, it’s much more resilient,” Swanson said. “Resiliency and efficiency are very different things.”


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