TWO BASINS IN 2050
Words by Alex Schwartz, Illustrations by Jenna Gibson
Herald and News / Report for America
The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together.
— Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Picture the Klamath Basin in March, as the summer of 2050 looms on the horizon. It’s been a warm, dry winter. Only specks of white remain on the mountaintops, streams languish with no snowmelt to surge their riffles and forests and grasslands already thirst for moisture. What will the experience of drought in the basin feel like if we do nothing to change the way we manage it? And what could it look like if the watershed’s stakeholders right the ship?
Plucked from a slew of possible futures, below are two scenarios the Klamath and its communities could face by the mid-21st Century. Though fictional, they are based on the impacts associated with a specific degree of warming determined by climate and economic modelers. Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCPs, are socioeconomic models that describe four different trajectories of carbon emissions, each resulting in a specific average temperature increase by the end of this century. Researchers can then use those trajectories to model the behavior of the atmosphere, assessing future impacts like extreme heat, fire danger, snowfall and more.
Both of these scenarios exist within RCP 4.5, which projects a global average temperature increase of about 3.24˚F by the end of this century relative to the period between 1986 and 2005 (for comparison, the Klamath Basin has already warmed by about 1˚F since the mid-20th century). For this to occur, global carbon emissions must peak by around 2040 and decline rapidly over the following 30 years to half of what they were in 2000.
Climate modelers consider RCP 4.5 a middle-of-the-road pathway. It emits more carbon and results in worse impacts than the best-case-scenario model that has become the goal for the 2015 Paris Agreement, but it’s not as catastrophic (or even as unlikely) as RCP 8.5, the worst-case pathway that more than doubles the increase in global temperatures by 2100.
For that to occur, humans would have to continue increasing fossil fuel use and emissions, despite market forces driving down the price of renewable energy even in the absence of robust climate policies.
In the Klamath Basin, future impacts based on RCP 4.5 and 8.5 only differ toward the end of this century, with the latter being more intense. For the purposes of imagining the Klamath Basin in 2050, both scenarios result in roughly the same outcome because previous emissions will have already locked in a certain level of warming by then.
In both of these futures, the annual average temperature of the basin will be 51.9˚F, nearly 4˚ warmer than it was in 2000. Each summer, the atmosphere will draw nearly an inch more water from plants than it used to, requiring that much more precipitation to replace it. Soils are 7% drier, and three fewer inches on average of snow-water equivalent are available to make it into streams and lakes by April 1. The average number of “extreme” fire danger days has increased by five each fire season because wildlands have become so parched.
But this isn’t a doomsday scenario — or at least it doesn’t have to be. The sparsely populated Klamath Basin can’t single-handedly reverse global emissions trends, but it can control how it responds to their related impacts. Though the first future described in “The Lone Farmer” could be considered the “bad” future, while the second described in “Lodgepole and Ponderosa” could be considered “good,” neither is any more likely than the other, and neither is set in stone.
The Lone Farmer
Corporate overlords have turned the Klamath Project into a crucial food-producing region for global cities cushioned from climate disasters. But the rest of the basin has become a wasteland.
The doorbell rang for the fifth time this month. Dylan knew who it was before he even answered it — nobody else would have a reason to be driving around the Klamath Hills, above and west of what used to be Merrill. There were no more neighbors left.
The Sunshine Farms land agent introduced himself for the umpteenth time and asked if he could come in. Dylan replied, once again, that he wasn’t interested in selling. How many times did this guy have to get it through his head?
The agent smiled coldly, handed the old farmer a packet of paper and walked back down from the porch. He sped away in his Tesla coupe.
Dylan grimaced at the sports car’s California license plate, as he had at thousands of California license plates before it. But it was moot to bemoan the ‘invasion’ of people from down south — they already outnumbered him.
A quick glance at what the agent had handed Dylan made his stomach drop. The words “eminent domain” popped out to him like a fly ball. Balancing his readers on his nose, he sat down at the kitchen table and squinted more closely at the document:
Dear Mr. Harford,
As you know, your 360-acre holdings are the only agricultural lands within the Klamath Project not currently owned by our company. We write to issue you a fifth offer for the purchase of your property (attached), which you will notice has increased by $45,000. We trust you will find this offer generous.
You will also find information about our FarmerBack™ program, which allows former Klamath Project growers to assist in the working of their sold lands while living comfortably in our state-of-the-art “city of the future,” Sunshine Acres, built on the former site of the town of Merrill.
We understand that selling a place your family has lived on for generations can be a difficult choice. To further inform your decision, attached is a copy of a petition filed in Klamath County Circuit Court on behalf of Sunshine Farms, Inc., requesting the use of eminent domain to condemn your property.
As a subsidiary of NestléGreen, a multinational food co-op that delivers fresh meats and produce to grocery hubs throughout the habitable zones of our planet, Sunshine Farms, Inc., has the ability to condemn land in service of the public interest. We have done so for approximately 40% of Klamath Project lands.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. Thank you in advance for your business.
Legal Counsel, Sunshine Farms, Inc.
Dylan incredulously yelled to his wife, asking if she could believe that Sunshine was going to actually take their land by force. Then he realized she wasn’t going to answer. He was still getting used to not having her around anymore.
The farmer put on a coat and boots and stormed out of the two-bedroom house. He headed up Falvey Road and scaled the sagebrush foothills blooming with yellow. He’d been taking this route a lot recently to clear his head — his 35-year-old self would’ve never believed him, but being a project farmer had gotten unimaginably worse since 2021. Now, evidently, he was the last man standing.
It seemed like the basin had been in freefall for the past 30 years. There had been talks of another settlement after the disastrous zero allocation of 2021, but once it became clear that 2022 wasn’t going to be much better, some people started organizing. At first, most project farmers were either too deep in crisis mode or indifferent to the fringe activism that began at the headgates — as long as it didn’t get violent, everyone he knew more or less shrugged it off. They thought, if nothing else will get us our water, maybe we have to be more creative.
The relative peace abruptly ended in mid-July 2022, a few weeks after the federal government shut off the A Canal for the rest of the season. Fifteen men — most of whom were from out of state — drove a crane through the fence onto Reclamation property, lifted the metal bulkheads that had sealed off the canal and let the water flow.
But thanks to a weeklong heat wave, the canal had all but dried up after the government shutoff occurred, so the rush of water did little but erode five adjacent properties and flush out people who had been camping under one of the canal’s bridges near downtown Klamath Falls.
Federal marshals descended on the headgates, and the standoff everyone had feared took place. The militia eventually surrendered, but roads into and out of Klamath Falls were closed for four days while the city sat on edge.
Though the situation had been largely hijacked by outside interests, that was the moment the federal government gave up on the Klamath Basin. Reclamation pulled all funding for the Drought Response Agency, citing non-compliance with the Klamath Project’s 2022 Operations Plan. No matter how hard lobbyists for irrigators tried, they couldn’t get funding from another source. The basin had become too toxic for Congress. The outside agitators quickly left that summer, but locals had to deal with the fallout.
Those with access to wells pumped aquifers again and, by August, hundreds of domestic wells in the project footprint had gone dry for the second year in a row. But the state provided minimal assistance because of the A Canal fiasco, and many of those landowners threw their hands up as the bank foreclosed on their homes. They couldn’t live in houses without running water.
The same thing happened to project producers, too. Almost 400 farms went belly-up that year alone, their lands consolidated into other local operations that had been expanding. Dylan had at least been grateful those lands weren’t going to corporate interests — yet.
After the summer of 2022, what little hope remained for a long-term solution crumbled. People turned more bitter, and legal battles became more frequent. But court decisions, many of which contradicted each other and opened doors to further litigation, drained the basin of what little money it had left. Over the 2020s, as more and more farmers couldn’t pay their mortgages, they dropped off one by one. By 2030, Dylan had sold half his original acreage.
At the top of the hill, Dylan looked out over the valleys that used to be the Klamath Project. To him, it existed in name only — being the primary recipient of irrigation water, the mega-conglomerate Sunshine Farms enjoyed a direct relationship with the Bureau of Reclamation and had enough money to lobby the feds to deliver whatever it needed from Upper Klamath Lake. To their credit, that meant they could also afford to significantly improve irrigation efficiency on the lands they owned. Eventually, they started bankrolling projects to line and pipe canals and drainages, ensuring no drop of water went to waste.
It also helped Sunshine that, by the time they started buying up land in the project, the basin’s endangered species were no longer endangered — they were extinct. There were fewer lawsuits by environmental groups to contend with.
The removal of the downstream hydroelectric project had been an exciting step, but salmon faced disease and water quality issues in the Upper Basin that couldn’t be solved without a settlement. Both the fall and spring Chinook runs joined Coho on the endangered species list in 2030.
After fish kills during the exceptional droughts of 2029 and 2030 finished off what few adults remained in Upper Klamath Lake, Lost River and shortnose suckers were declared functionally extinct in the wild shortly after the remaining salmon runs became endangered.
By 2032, when only 300 struggling farm operations remained in the Klamath Project, irrigators’ political power in the basin was almost nonexistent. After that, the only groups left to litigate were the tribes. It had been particularly gut-wrenching to follow the landmark federal court case where two Native American tribes — the Yurok and Klamath — argued over whether salmon or suckers deserved the water in Upper Klamath Lake. As Dylan’s tribal friends told him personally, it was devastating for them, too.
The litigation ended in a court-mediated settlement that required the two tribes to share water and devise a new flow regime for releases from Link River and Keno dams. It also compelled the federal government to devote funding to a salmon hatchery below Keno Dam and two additional sucker hatcheries along the Williamson and Sprague rivers. But without landscape-scale restoration in the Upper Basin, the fish would remain on life support in perpetuity.
The tribes’ settlement left the Klamath Project with zero water in any year drier than normal. Groundwater provided the only way to reliably farm in the basin, which Dylan luckily had access to. He’d also switched to fall irrigation during wet years, growing dryland grain that didn’t have to be irrigated during the summer, and implemented regenerative practices that increased his soils’ organic matter and kept the ground moist for longer. Even with USDA grants, it wasn’t feasible to do it on more than 300 acres. The 60 surrounding the house — once a lively alfalfa stand — sat desolate most years.
Sunshine came to town in 2038, offering contracts with local growers to farm their proprietary varieties — onions, potatoes and even berries specially bred and modified to survive extreme heat and long periods without water. It was ultimately a bait-and-switch. As agriculture around the world became decimated by worsening floods and droughts, the corporation exorbitantly raised prices on their most resilient crops.
Added to the costs of groundwater pumping, drilling deeper wells and the project’s annual operation and maintenance payments — which were still there even when there was no surface water — even the larger farms couldn’t stick it out anymore. As each producer folded, smiling Sunshine land agents showed up to buy the land.
Thankful he hadn’t bought into the proprietary crop scheme, Dylan turned his gaze east. In the valley below, on the bones of the once-thriving farm town of Merrill, sat “Sunshine Acres,” a Pleasantville-like company town stacked with amenities. Sunshine even treated the Lost River, which had become an algal cesspool, so that it ran clear through the town. On the sea of fields surrounding it, devoid of farmhouses, automated drones sprayed pesticides over row crops to ward off the scourges of grasshoppers that regularly descended on the basin; Dylan knew it’d only be a matter of time before the air would start to smell like sulfur again.
Farmers were invited to move to Sunshine Acres and manage land tracts for the company. The work was pretty much the same as what they’d done their whole lives, just on someone else’s terms. Dylan couldn’t understand the appeal — to him, a smart house with a three-car garage wasn’t worth losing the freedom of running your own farm.
Dylan scoffed at the name Sunshine Farms, which was basically an insult to Klamath Falls’ former reputation as Oregon’s City of Sunshine. Now, smoke from nearby wildfires blanketed the Klamath Basin for an average of 80 days a year — June through September was pretty much a wash in terms of going outside. Workers on the Sunshine fields had to wear special helmets with air filters for most of the summer. On days when the smoke was so thick that the sky turned orange, they looked like astronauts trying to farm on Mars.
Once Sunshine owned a majority of land within the project, it was essentially game over for the tribes. The company originally financed hatcheries and the occasional fish habitat restoration project to save face, but that trailed off quickly. Sunshine and its parent company, NestléGreen, eventually convinced the federal government to subsidize and support its operations wherever possible, arguing that it was time once again for the United States to step up and feed the world amid cascading climate catastrophes.
Global “food security” evidently took priority over the already decimated endemic foods of the Klamath Basin. With suckers extirpated from Upper Klamath Lake, Sunshine could essentially divert as much as it pleased as long as it left a trickle for the Klamath River.
Tribal members tried to organize protests against Sunshine and its parent corporation, but the bitter legal fight left a rift between upriver and downriver communities that ultimately made the actions ineffective. Without their integral food sources and battling near-constant wildfires, none of the tribes were whole enough to put up a winning fight. And in 2044, a devastating winter flood, driven by two back-to-back atmospheric river events, inundated much of the Native communities along the Klamath River. Most people didn’t bother rebuilding.
Most of Dylan’s tribal friends had moved to Portland or Eureka. The last time he and his wife had visited the mouth of the Klamath, they watched in sadness as a Yurok fisher hoisted a gill net coated in algae out of the water, having caught no salmon for the day. It was a shame. Dylan had been excited to finally cast a line for salmon on the Williamson, only for there to be too few fish to catch.
Perhaps it was toughest for Dylan to swallow what happened to the wildlife refuges in his own backyard. To the southeast, Dylan gazed out at the collection of geometric, barren flats that were once the wetlands of Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, framed by a nearly bare-sloped Mt. Shasta.
The dust storms kicked up by winds in the early summer on Lower Klamath and the similarly dry Tule Lake Refuge were wicked, and he’d heard that Sunshine was actually proposing to ‘improve’ the situation by paving over them with concrete. There was apparently enough water to farm every irrigated acre in the “Klamath Project” no matter how dry the year, but none to send to the refuges. No one had seen a pelican in the area in years.
Dylan wondered if the rich folks in San Francisco or London or Tokyo — “fortress” cities insulated from climate-fueled disasters that you had to apply to live in — knew about the abject ecological and social harm done to produce every yellow-minted package of Sunshine Farms produce that appeared in their grocery marts, adorned by the company’s heartwarming slogan: “Food for you and the planet.”
Dylan looked back at the house, a no-frills two-bedroom he’d lived in with his late wife since the day they got back from their honeymoon. They raised their son Hunter there, but given how depressing the surrounding landscape became, Hunter wanted off the farm as soon as he could. He left the basin for college and had never come back, other than for the occasional Thanksgiving or Christmas.
The worst thing about all this was the silence: No birds chirping in the spring and fall, no fish jumping out of the rivers, no cheering carnival riders at the Tulelake Fair, no mooing cows, no sound of tribal prayers, no crackling of ceremonial fires. All had been replaced by the precise, expertly timed, largely automated operations of Sunshine.
Tears welling in his eyes, Dylan decided it was time to throw in the towel. Maybe he’d move out east and live in a place with too much rain for a change — anything but the eerie, manicured streets of Sunshine Acres. He wished he were angry enough to stay, maybe get a pro bono lawyer to help him fight the eminent domain petition. But he mostly felt empty. He’d given everything he had to a basin that didn’t exist anymore.
As the last farmer in the Klamath Project took one final look at the mountains and valleys that raised him, he took comfort in the fact that these great landforms would long outlive the destruction humans had inflicted on this place. He started back down the desert hill, the sky a rare blue, the silence deafening.
Lodgepole and Ponderosa
Young people are hard at work restoring and protecting the Klamath Basin’s wetlands, forests and waterways. Despite intensifying climate change impacts, a 30-year effort has put the basin on a path toward resilience.
On a crisp March morning, sunlight hit the last spring snow banks clinging to the ridges above the Sprague River Valley. The air was thick with conifer pollen, and the first chirps of the spring migration echoed through the forest. It was a perfect day to rid the Upper Klamath Basin of its last wooden invaders.
A forestry crew marched through a 300-acre parcel of the Klamath Reservation. From the patrol drone’s camera high above, the dense collection of vegetation resembled a dark island in a forested sea. Wielding electric chainsaws, the foresters zeroed in on lodgepole pines — thin, short trees that would act like sticks in a campfire come summer. The 100-year-old ponderosas dotted among them could handle a low intensity blaze, but not if the lodgepoles provided enough fuel for it to burn out of control.
Hazel Rodriguez sliced through another young tree’s gray bark, its dense, bushy crown toppling onto the forest floor. Following behind, two of her crewmates fed it through a limbing machine, and out popped a thin, smooth log to be tossed on a pile with the others.
In 2030, following a decade of climate-fueled hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires and extinctions, it became clear that Americans were ill-prepared for the catastrophic changes stemming from a warming atmosphere. The Interior Department established a climate corps program for each watershed in the Western U.S., inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps created a century earlier. Each corps’ governing board, consisting of representatives from the watershed’s stakeholder groups, had to identify major climate resilience goals to implement on the ground, and the feds would pay for the equipment, expertise and personnel required to see them through.
Urban areas, which also had their own corps, focused on built environment infrastructure like green spaces, energy efficiency and disaster protection. Rural watersheds mainly did ecosystem restoration. After centuries of degradation, the Klamath Basin’s forests, streams and wetlands began to face a flashier climate regime with even less of an ability to rebound from disturbance events. If the basin were a hospital patient, climate change had set the hospital on fire.
The Klamath Restoration Corps recruited hundreds of young adults from communities up and down the basin and had them rotate through four main restoration areas: forests, wetlands, streams and fisheries. Guided by science and traditional ecological knowledge, they reconnected upland springs to streams, practiced prescribed burns, set rivers free from their channels, rehabilitated sickened birds, turned fields back into wetlands and sampled fish. Much of the work took place in the Upper Basin, where the most development had occurred and where improvements would echo all the way down to the sea.
The Klamath Tribes Forestry Division had intended to leave the last corner of its Yainax Treatment Project unthinned until the fall. With the rest of the reservation’s forest treated ahead of the master plan’s schedule, most corps foresters had moved on early to their wetland and riparian restoration rotations or other treatment projects in the Lower Basin.
But following two rain-on-snow events in February, snowpack models were already predicting severe drought for most of Upper Klamath Lake’s headwaters by February. An early March heat wave solidified that, melting almost half of the little snowpack remaining. And fire weather forecasts predicted above-average red flag conditions for most of the summer.
The Tribes decided to retain one handcrew to thin and burn the last Yainax lodgepole stand in the spring — they didn’t want to take any chances.
Her brow furrowed with concern, Hazel asked her squad boss where the timber would end up. Tribal mill or Chiloquin Village, she replied.
Hazel breathed a sigh of relief. She’d never voice it, but she hated cutting down trees. The buzz of the chainsaws and the rumble of the limbing machine grated at her ears, and she winced as each tree toppled to the forest floor. But it was a comfort to know that these lodgepoles might form the beams of an earthen lodge in the traditional village, where she could sit and hear her grandmother tell stories, or fuel fires that would smoke salmon on the banks of the Sprague.
Still, with only two weeks left in her forestry rotation, Hazel was more than ready to hand in her chainsaw. The wetland rotation had been much more her speed — few things were more exciting than a late summer night zipping across Tule Lake Refuge in an airboat, tagging ducks illuminated only by a refuge biologist’s flashlight and billions of stars.
Even though the wetland restoration projects required noisy construction gear, they still felt more regenerative than destructive. After breaching a dike or filling in an eroded bank, all you had to do was sit back and watch the tules, wocus and cattails spring to life, and soon the birds and fish would follow. It was Mother Nature at her most resilient.
But as Hazel’s mother Charlotte (coincidentally, the Tribes’ natural resources director) always told her growing up, most ecosystems are incomplete without humans responsibly tending to them. Maybe her ancestors hadn’t marched through the trees in hardhats and logger boots, but they still knew that a healthy forest didn’t grow entirely on its own. She reminded herself that removing the lodgepoles and burning the remaining ground vegetation would help the rest of the forest — namely the stately ponderosa pines — survive the summer.
With the day’s thinning completed and the logs hauled off to Chiloquin, Hazel drove back to Tulelake. Pulling into her driveway, she watched her father, Hector, corralling the goats back behind the fence. Light began to fade as the sun set behind Sheepy Ridge and a storm system began to move in from the west. The basin was in for some fish blanket snow — Hazel could feel it.
Hector had a pot roast in the oven fringed by fresh spring onions — the year’s first harvest from the garden. Though delicious, they were a reminder of the warm, dry conditions to come. Growing anything this early in the year hadn’t been possible at the turn of the century.
The irrigation district had announced the season’s water allocation to growers on March 1, but the drought forecasting had already made it obvious to everyone that this would be a low, non-export year. Hector had already sectioned off the 10 acres of the 72-acre field that would be irrigated, letting the goats loose on the cover crop and waiting for it to decompose into the topsoil. Ironically, the adjacent field had been flooded since 2048, when a wet year allowed Hector to participate in the Walking Wetlands program, which had been expanded on private lands as part of the implementation of the Klamath Basin Ecosystem Cooperation Agreement (KBECA).
Negotiations for the agreement started in 2022, after an average winter failed to lift the basin out of the previous year’s historic drought. Court cases had provided little legal resolution, and representatives from nearly every stakeholder group decided they’d rather spend the summer working on a long-term fix to the basin’s water woes than remain holed up in their respective corners. Only this time, they’d test out as many solutions as possible even before coming to a final agreement five years later.
Avoiding KBRA-related baggage, KBECA talks started from scratch and focused on reintegrating the basin’s landscapes and communities, though some of the previous agreement’s components made a comeback. KBECA set a floor and ceiling for Klamath Project diversions and water deliveries to Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Refuges, funded landscape-scale restoration, returned federal land to tribes and set up a common governance system for water in the basin with representatives from each stakeholder group.
The first thing negotiators did was jointly lobby the federal government to acquire water for the refuges through temporary water right transfers (to be retired after full implementation of the agreement) and to increase funding for Walking Wetlands off the refuges, guaranteeing wetland habitat for birds throughout the Upper Basin. Lower Klamath and Tule Lake reverted from dry, cracked lake beds to avian paradises.
It didn’t take long for ducks, geese, pelicans and grebes to notice — programming for the 2025 Winter Wings Festival expanded to the spring and fall migrations because so many birds began to blacken the sky again.
Thanks to aggressive lobbying and advocacy from a united front of stakeholders who turned it into a national story, the KBECA passed Congress in 2026, and the president signed a historic bill allocating roughly a billion dollars to restoration in the Klamath Basin. Leaders of tribes, irrigation districts, agricultural organizations and environmental groups stood at Putnam’s Point in Klamath Falls, the site of the ancestral Modoc village of Eulalona, to ceremoniously sign the agreement. On a sunny day in late spring, pairs of mating grebes glided across the water behind them.
Just across the Link River from the spot where, 25 years ago, the basin had been thrust into the national spotlight as a cautionary tale of water wars, broken promises and environmental hardship, cameras were rolling for a different reason. The Klamath Basin was becoming a model for collaboration in the climate change era.
Given how hard he had worked to build the farm and secure a grain contract with La Banderita tortillas (his personal favorite brand), it had been difficult for Hector to accept the possibility of limiting his irrigated acreage in some years. He and his father had both been farmworkers, so he knew how vital water was to the survival of communities in the project. He and many other producers hesitated to give up any water.
But with some water coming to the Klamath Project each year no matter the hydrology, the KBECA created a new drought relief program that allowed farmers to consolidate their allocations and dedicate a small portion of their lands to subsidized vegetable crops designated primarily for local consumption. Funding, training resources and new technologies allowed farmers to change the scale of their operations from year to year with relatively few headaches.
Interior’s climate corps program came at the perfect time. In addition to their environmental work, KRC crews also modernized irrigation systems and helped farmers switch to regenerative, soil-building practices like cover cropping, low-till and organic farming, further reducing the project’s demands for water. Producers still had the option to fallow their fields to collect relief funding, but the KBECA ensured there’d always be some farming and wetland habitat in the project.
Ironically, a string of drought years in the late 2020s led to a resurgence in local food co-ops, which provided the infrastructure needed to distribute local crops to local storage facilities and grocers. Enjoying the relationship they had with their customers, some producers decided to permanently keep sections of their farms in the local program even in wet years.
The Klamath Falls Farmers Market soon became the envy of southern Oregon, tents lining Main Street with a rainbow of onions, greens, peppers, carrots — and, of course, potatoes. Co-ops eventually opened permanent locations throughout the project, the abundant vegetables purchased wholesale by local restaurants and schools. A multi-function cannery opened just south of the city, allowing both vegetables and fish to be preserved through the winter. Farm-to-table restaurants proliferated, and classes at community centers taught people used to eating frozen meals and McDonalds how to cook with the bounty grown in their backyards.
Hundreds of people from Klamath Falls to Malin purchased Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, getting boxes of fresh vegetables weekly during the growing season. The Department of Agriculture subsidized many of these subscriptions for food-insecure households, helping facilitate their distribution to rural communities without easy access to grocery stores. Rates of food insecurity among tribal members plummeted throughout the basin.
It required a big shift in thinking for project producers, who were used to exporting their crops outside the basin to feed the world. But they decided that, at least during droughts, they needed to help take care of their neighbors first. Hector soon came to love the feeling of handing someone a red onion or bunch of carrots at the Tulelake Farmers Market, or dropping a truncated wheat crop off at the Newell Grain Mill.
The Klamath Project’s ownership eventually reverted from the Bureau of Reclamation to irrigation districts, governed by a locally elected board. Obligations to protect endangered species didn’t go away, but local control allowed tribes and irrigators to adaptively manage water without going through the federal government.
The Klamath Basin had become a hotspot for agriculture’s cutting edge. With one of the most reliable water supplies of any irrigated farming area in the world, people constantly experimented with new crops, water delivery methods and growing techniques. The water savings only increased.
In wet years, the project acted like a giant filter, leading water from Upper Klamath Lake through farmland, walking wetlands and ultimately the refuges before returning it to the Klamath River. Plants filtered the nutrient-rich water, which already contained fewer chemical inputs due to the increased adoption of organic farming across the project, improving downstream water quality. Better drought forecasting allowed for fall and winter pulse releases from Upper Klamath Lake directly into the river to coincide with storms, letting the Klamath mimic its natural flow regime.
That, along with the successful removal of the river’s four hydroelectric dams at the end of 2023, greatly reduced disease threat for young salmon. The mass of sediment released from the drawn down reservoirs scoured the riverbed so intensely that it virtually obliterated the colony of parasite-harboring worms that had carpeted the rocks below Iron Gate Dam.
Hazel wished she could’ve been there when the first salmon showed up at Link River two springs later. Most people didn’t believe their eyes, and it suddenly hit home that ecosystems can rebound — even after a century — if given the chance. High flows had materialized as if to welcome the fish home after a hundred years, but there was still work to be done to make the Upper Basin more hospitable to the salmon, later funded by the KBECA. Aided by restoration work and demand reduction in the Scott and Shasta rivers, coho salmon were officially taken off the endangered species list in 2045.
With C’waam and Koptu populations still declining in the 2020s, landowners of reclaimed marshes along the shore of Upper Klamath Lake entered into a Walking Wetlands program of their own, taking turns flooding their fields to allow baby suckers to take refuge during periods of poor water quality in the lake. That practice then expanded to the refuges, allowing suckers to return to their original habitats in the Klamath Project footprint.
Project farmers like Hector also helped bring back the C’waam and Koptu by raising juveniles on their Walking Wetlands until they were old enough to survive in the slowly healing lake. Hatcheries operated by the Klamath Tribes and Fish and Wildlife Service expanded with KBECA funding. Every year, more C’waam and Koptu began joining the spawning cohort, and more fish meant more nutrients being removed from the lake.
Landowners along the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake entered into conservation easements with the Tribes, and ample funding allowed them to quickly restore riparian zones to trap water and sediment. Ecological restoration soon became one of the most prolific industries in Klamath County. Phosphorus loading into the lake began to drop, and cyanobacteria blooms shrank in size as the nutrients settled out or were uptaken by newly restored wetland plants.
Hazel remembered a few years ago when, for the first time since the 1990s, naturally reproduced C’waam and Koptu joined adults in Upper Klamath Lake to spawn up the Williamson — and again for the next two years in a row. The Klamath Tribes had announced that, later this month at the Return of the C’waam Ceremony, they had received permission from Fish and Wildlife to catch eight additional fish, which would be smoked on the banks of the Sprague and shared among tribal elders.
The next morning, Hazel’s weather predictions came true. Fat, wet snowflakes floated gently down from the sky: fish blanket snow. She knew it would only be a matter of time before the first C’waam, remembering the tradition of its ancestors, would enter the mouth of the Williamson, followed by its younger relatives. Even as the fish approached the brink of extinction, they never stopped their yearly journey up the river.
As she drove back up to the Yainax site for the cultural burn, the rust-colored ponderosa trunks towering over the gravelled forest road, Hazel thought about the choices these species had made over thousands of generations — or, rather, the choices evolution had made for them. Though they both had bushy clumps of pine needles and soft wood, ponderosas and lodgepoles had adopted wildly different strategies to survive.
The skinny, fragile lodgepoles grew fast and produced as many offspring as possible, hoping that some would survive. But they did little to protect themselves from the fire the rest of the forest had evolved with, succumbing to even natural, low-intensity blazes. Ponderosas, on the other hand, learned to live with fire. They grew slowly, putting more resources into thickening their bark and deepening their roots. As their crowns ascended from the forest floor, they dropped their lower branches to make room for fire, their scaly, ochre bark sheltering them from harm during frequent lightning storms. They were in it for the long haul.
Lodgepoles only came to dominate parts of the forest when humans took the fire off the landscape, suppressing both natural and cultural burning. The less hardy trees grew unchecked, creating an overgrown landscape just as a warming climate set fire to the tinderbox. Blazes burned out of control, and the ponderosas began to succumb to them, too.
Just as in the Klamath Reservation’s forests, climate change had caused a massive uprooting throughout the Klamath Basin. Layered on top of an environment that colonization had already disconnected and unraveled, the new climate’s flashier, more extreme conditions put long-lived legacy species in peril while favoring organisms that survived through boom and bust.
C’waam and Koptu succumbed to algae in Upper Klamath Lake, their blooms and crashes killing vulnerable juveniles before they could grow into hardier adults. Salmon endured a gauntlet of parasite-spewing worms on the Klamath River, aided by the moderated flows released by dams.
Humans in the basin realized they faced a similar dilemma: Be like the lodgepoles, racing aimlessly and vulnerably toward a short-term idea of success, briefly dominating a space only to be destroyed within decades. Or they could take inspiration from the ponderosas, putting down wide, deep roots and growing thick skin, able to better withstand the forest’s fiery cleanses. Sure, it’d take longer to grow, but their communities would be resilient well into the future.
It was a difficult choice — the more chaotic conditions tended to favor the lodgepole. It was tempting for communities to chug along faster and wring out the basin for its remaining resources, using what they could while they could. But then they thought of what would happen after the fish stopped swimming, after the wells ran dry, after the last tree burned: There’d be no basin left, at least not one that was worth living in and tending to.
So, partially through deliberate measures like the KBECA and partially through a broader shift in values, newcomers to the basin followed the teachings of its original inhabitants. They learned to value places not for how they could be used, but for what they were. They learned to take care of their homelands not just for their kids or grandkids, but for many more generations into the future.
That’s not to say there weren’t some major losses. Many farms didn’t survive. Even after major restoration efforts, fish populations took decades to rebound. Megafires continued to rage in drought-stricken forests before crews were able to introduce enough good fire to quell them. So many people saw special places, their escapes from the chaos of the world — forest trails, fishing holes, even their homes — change in startling and sometimes catastrophic ways. But communities were able to keep themselves whole in the face of disaster because they weathered it together.
What it really boiled down to was being able to live with nature. People couldn’t control how much snow fell, but they could control how they responded to it. And after decades of doing so with animosity and legal fees, they changed their approach. They focused instead on sharing what nature did provide and restoring ecosystems’ ability to naturally weather extremes.
Nobody would tell you it was easy. But the work paid off.
The 2050 drought would have been called historic 30 years ago, but it was now part of the basin’s new normal. And instead of the dryness descending on a dusty wasteland, it met a reconnected mosaic of wetlands, farms, lakes, rivers, forests and communities, all more than prepared to make it through the year together.
After the burn, Hazel headed to Chiloquin to visit her grandmother. She found her sitting at the edge of the Williamson, beaming. The clouds had dissipated, and the sun already began to melt the dusting of fish blanket snow, casting afternoon rays on the riffle behind her house. She motioned for Hazel to come quickly and pointed at the water. Squinting through the reflection on its surface, she saw a dark shape wiggling upstream, shimmering with gold. The C’waam had returned.