TULELAKE, Calif.—Joey Gentry hesitates before she drives through the fields of alfalfa and wheat that line the roads in the Klamath Basin.
“Because I’m good and brown,” said Gentry, a member of the Klamath Tribes and a tribal and racial justice activist. ”It’s not safe for Natives to be out in farmland during a drought year.”
Like much of the American West, this dry, hilly, high-elevation landscape straddling the California-Oregon border is experiencing a summer of extreme drought. But when the federal government announced in May that, for the first time ever, it would cut irrigation water to about 180,000 acres of agriculture in the basin, tensions ignited between farmers and the Klamath tribes.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made the cuts to preserve two endangered species of suckerfish sacred to the Klamath Tribes, as well as protected coho and chinook salmon that travel along the Klamath River to reach spawning habitat. After meeting the needs of the fish, the bureau determined, there would not be enough water left over for most irrigators in the basin.
Demand for water often exceeds supply in the Klamath Basin, and when drought strikes, feuding often follows. This summer was no exception.
Many people who rely on irrigation worry that theirs will be the last generation to farm this region as the climate warms, droughts stretch longer and water becomes increasingly scarce. A handful of frustrated locals have threatened to ignore the government’s decision and forcibly open canal gates themselves, releasing irrigation water to fields. And in a Facebook group called “Klamath Basin Crisis,” one commenter wrote: “Expert idiot liberal persons decided they did not want to eat anymore, and the few remaining Indians forgot who won the war.”
The Klamath tribes have come to expect hostility from irrigators in drought years. This summer some tribal members are removing eagle feathers from rearview mirrors to prevent vandalism to their cars.
Farmers arrived in the Klamath Basin in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Klamath Tribes were here thousands of years before that. And somewhere deep in time, several species of fish central to tribal traditions and livelihoods claimed this place as home, as did waterfowl and migratory birds needing respite on their flights up and down the western United States.
All need water. All have been promised water by the federal government. But in the last 20 years, it’s become clear there’s not enough to go around.
Such a dire reality forced action several years ago. In 2010, tribes, irrigators, conservationists and other organizations with a stake in the Klamath Basin signed a historic agreement that hammered out how to share water, even during drought years.
But Congress failed to pass necessary legislation tied to the agreement, and the plan disintegrated.
“It’s always sad, on any topic, when you see something that descends into disaster when you see it could be avoided,” said Lester Snow, former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, who was involved in the negotiations.
After Congress passed the federal Reclamation Act in 1902, The Klamath Reclamation Project or “The Project,” as it’s often called, was one of the first reclamation projects in the country. The projects were designed to “reclaim” arid landscapes for human use. The Klamath Reclamation Project dedicated water from Upper Klamath Lake and two other small reservoirs to 200,000 acres of farmland, through an elaborate network of dams, ditches and canals that spanned 185 miles.
A massive dispossession of Indigenous people from land in the area in the late 1800s made the project possible. In Tulelake, California, rocky ridges that tower over alfalfa and wheat farms still hold petroglyphs carved by Modoc ancestors. (The Modoc and Klamath tribes, along with the Yahooskin-Paiute band of Snake Indians, historically were closely connected and are now referred to as the Klamath Tribes.)
To create space for farms in this landscape, two natural lakes were drained, as were thousands of acres of marshes. Land that was once underwater was divided up and given as homesteads to veterans of World War I and World War II.
Two wildlife refuges remained in the basin for migrating birds, and water diverted from the project’s reservoirs, along with recycled irrigation water, has been used to keep the ponds in the refuges full. Except this year. Water is so limited, and botulism has become so pervasive in one of two ponds at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drained one pond and pumped water into the other, in the hope that one healthy pond would keep birds disease-free.
The “A” Canal, located where Upper Klamath Lake meets the Klamath River, is the project’s main artery, delivering water to roughly 1,200 farms that grow horseradish, potatoes for chips and fries, alfalfa for dairy cows and mint that flavors toothpaste and tea. Because of the reclamation bureau’s water cuts, that canal remains shut this year. Usually irrigators need 400,000 acre feet of water. But with the A Canal dry, most project farmers will receive no irrigation water at all, instead relying on pumped groundwater, idled fields or a combination of both. A small section of the reclamation project which does not depend on the A Canal for water, will receive about 30,000 acre feet, enough to keep fields irrigated for only part of the summer.
Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association and a third-generation farmer who grows alfalfa hay and wheat and raises cattle on 500 acres near Tulelake, California, had to break the news about the water to hundreds of fellow irrigators at the Klamath County fairgrounds in May. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “There might be some who are out of business next year. I include myself in that group. I have a mortgage on every farm I own, an operating loan, equipment payments. It takes a certain amount of income to service all that debt.”
Nearly the same thing happened in 2001, another dry year. The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Klamath Project, withheld water from irrigators to protect suckerfish from dangerously low lake levels.
In July of 2001, upset farmers organized large protests at the gates of the A canal. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” blared on repeat, and farmers ultimately pried open the headgates with crowbars and saws, allowing water to briefly flow. (Gates were later closed and ultimately the Bureau of Reclamation sent about 50,000 acre feet of water into the canal.)
That year cars sported bumper stickers saying: “Some sucker stole my water.” In the city of Klamath Falls, a few tribal members said, restaurants refused to serve water to Indigenous diners. And in December of that year, two men riding home from a duck hunting trip drove through Chiloquin, Oregon, where the headquarters of the Klamath Tribes is located, firing shotguns from their pickup truck and shouting “suckerlovers” for more than an hour.
Unlike areas of parched California that have focused on increasing storage of water in wet years to survive extended drought, the geology and hydrology of the Klamath Basin won’t allow for carryover storage.
“Year to year, what’s in their bank account is decided come June,” said Jeff Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “And they have to make due with what they’ve got.”
With no obvious solution, a cycle of litigation continues, a tug-of-war over the Bureau of Reclamation’s obligations to tribes, the Endangered Species Act and the irrigators. “The traditional approach is to go to the courts, sue, and there’s a winner and loser,” Mount said. “There are no winners here. This is all about who is struggling.”
The historic agreement that disappears
From 2005 to 2015, the basin took a time-out from fighting over water to make space for negotiations. Known as the “KBRA” years, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was largely about sacrifice: how much water competing parties—irrigators, tribal members, state fish and wildlife agencies and conservationists—were willing to give up during a drought.
To keep talks moving, there were elements to the agreement that went beyond water. For instance, the Klamath Tribes were promised a return of tribal land and economic investment in their community.
“It was a work of art. It was incredible.” said DuVal, the farmer from Tulelake, California who supported the agreements. DuVal said for irrigators, the KBRA offered certainty. Even in dry times, farmers were likely to receive at least a small percentage of the water they usually required. “Farmers are a creative bunch. We’d idle some fields, use some groundwater,” said DuVal. “That security is what made it work for us.”
The KBRA, and a companion agreement, proposed $500 million in new federal spending for wetland habitat restoration, improved irrigation infrastructure and other programs, including one that would ease the financial burden on farmers who agreed not to plant during drought.
A third agreement tied to the KBRA, called the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), arranged for the removal of four privately-owned hydroelectric dams in the Klamath Basin, an agreement championed by tribes and environmental groups as a way to restore access to spawning habitat for threatened salmon and to improve water quality.
In 2010, at a ceremony at the Oregon state capitol in Salem, the agreements were signed by the governors of Oregona and California. Those who attended the ceremony recall a roar of laughter when then California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (and former star of the movie“The Terminator”) declared, “Hasta la vista, dams.”
The dams, though, contributed to the unraveling of the KBRA. The restoration agreement and the hydroelectric agreement required that Congress approve them by 2015. In 2014, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced legislation that passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But the legislation never made it beyond that. Wyden tried again in 2015 and couldn’t get a committee hearing.
“There were some congressional folks who, in their DNA, could not support tearing down dams,” said Lester Snow, the former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, who worked on KBRA negotiations.
A spokesperson for Congressman Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican representing counties with dams slated for removal, said LaMalfa, former Oregon Congressman Greg Walden and other Republicans in Congress didn’t believe dam removal would improve salmon habitat. And many of LaMalfa’s constituents were concerned that removing the dams would cause flooding and sediment damage that might harm their waterfront properties or decrease property values.
Some in Congress also worried that if they signed off on dam removal, the federal government would be on the hook should environmental damage occur when the dams came down.
But the dams were not operated for flood control and provided no irrigation benefits. And Pacific Corp., a private company that owned them, decided to move ahead with dam removal, regardless of further federal action.
An amended version of the hydroelectric settlement agreement, detached from the original KBRA, is now moving through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Process. Dam removal may begin as soon as 2023. There’s controversy about the cost of tearing down the four dams run by Pacific Corp., whose parent company is billionaire Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. The $450 million project will largely fall on the backs of California and Oregon taxpayers, as well as Pacific Corp. ratepayers in Oregon and California.
Still, dam removal is on track, while all the water sharing agreements and restoration plans folded into the KBRA withered years ago when Congress failed to act.
Support for the KBRA wasn’t universal. Some farmers resented giving up water they say belonged to them. A small number of tribal members felt surrendering water would put endangered suckerfish, called c’waam and koptu in the Klamath Tribe’s traditional language, in peril.
But Frankie Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s Vice Chairman, says, for better or worse, it was a plan. “We certainly weren’t in love with it. It had flaws,” he said. “It led us into the future. We’ve been stumbling around trying to make short-term management decisions that don’t necessarily bring into consideration climate change or community impact.”
Fight For Survival
Near the Klamath Tribe’s headquarters, in a sunny corner of a teardrop-shaped pond, thousands of juvenile koptu resembling blades of grass with eyes wiggle into a tight cluster. These fish started life in tupperware, when biologists from the Klamath Tribes harvested eggs from mature females, sperm from mature males and let nature take its course in plastic take-out containers.
This spring, as a hedge against extinction, the Klamath Tribes started raising c’waam, (also called the Lost River suckerfish), and koptu, (often referred to as the shortnose suckerfish for their stubby, slightly upturned faces) at their aquatics research facility.
On a recent afternoon, Alex Gonyaw, senior fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes, stood at the edge of the pond, which was lined with plastic and seeded with green alfalfa and fish bone meal to pack the water with nutrients. Eventually, fish from the pond will be released into Upper Klamath Lake.
Gonyaw estimates there are about 80,000 young koptu in the pond as well as in plastic pools located inside the research facility, and only 3,400 of the fish in Upper Klamath Lake. Five years ago, when Gonyaw began studying c’waam and koptu, fish counts showed about 20,000 koptu in the lake. The c’waam are more abundant but are also diminishing in numbers. Both the c’waam and koptu were listed as endangered in the late 1980s and are endemic to the region. “We’ll keep them on the planet,” said Gonyaw on a recent afternoon. “I don’t have too much hope for them in the wild.”
Klamath tribal members view the survival of the fish as a spiritual obligation. “To some people that implies that we worship the fish,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes and Joey Gentry’s brother. “We don’t worship the fish. We recognize that because our creator created those fish, and everything here, including one another, that (the fish) are sacred. We have a responsibility that they are taken care of.”
Tribal members believe that thousands of years ago a giant serpent was preying upon their people and their creator, Gmok’ am’c, grabbed a knife and sliced the snake into pieces. Those pieces were tossed into Upper Klamath Lake and became the c’waam and koptu, a vital food source for Klamath Tribes. “That’s how we survived the ages,” said Gentry.
Upper Klamath Lake looks vast, measuring an impressive 26-miles long and about 6-miles wide. But it’s deceptively shallow — only six feet deep. Volcanic rock and sediment keep the water’s phosphorus and nitrogen levels high. The reclamation activities of the early 1900s removed 40,000 acres of wetlands that used to help filter some of those nutrients.
More wetlands have been lost over the last 100 years, said Gonyaw. And by late summer, when juvenile fish need wetlands to shelter in, the few remaining marshes are often lacking water and baking in the sun. It’s typical for Upper Klamath Lake to lose about 70 percent of its water to fulfill the needs of irrigators and endangered fish in the Klamath River.
On top of that, cattle ranchers with land along tributaries that feed Upper Klamath Lake often let cattle destroy riparian land and wade into the water, contributing to excess phosphorus and other nutrients polluting the lake. A toxic blue-green algae blooms so aggressively come late summer that from a satellite it looks like teal-colored paint has spilled into the lake’s water.
The c’waam and koptu are a hearty bunch, though. They can live up to 50-years-old and grow two-to-four feet long; they help process phosphorus up through the food chain; and just one mature female produces hundreds of thousands of larvae every spring. But Gonyaw said most juveniles die by October, and the fish haven’t had a successful reproductive year since the early 1990s. “None of them have made it due to human-induced changes in water quality and water quantity which is beyond the juveniles’ abilities to survive,” Gonyaw said.
The lake’s water quality, and its role in suckerfish mortality, has emerged as a point of contention in pre-and-post KBRA years. Farmers argue that it’s water quality killing the fish, not the quantity of water taken from the lake for agriculture. A 2002 study by the National Research Council, commissioned after the protests in 2001, found that there was no “clear connection” between low lake levels and fish mortality.
Gonyaw said the study was shortsighted and did not take into account the number of variables that can affect the c’waam and the koptu, including water temperature, water inflow and windless days that allow dirty water to stagnate. He pointed to a more recent study that indicated that low lake levels, when combined with other factors, could lead to high mortality. A forthcoming study by the U.S. Geological Survey is looking into how all these variables interact and influence the health of c’waam and koptu habitat.
“Lake level is the one thing we can control,” Gonyaw said.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the District Court of Oregon and the U.S, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in United States v. Adair that the Klamath Tribes held senior water rights in the Klamath Basin, citing an 1864 treaty between the United States and the Klamath Indians. The tribes ceded 20 million acres of land, but retained an implied right to as much water as necessary to protect their hunting and fishing rights on their remaining reservation, with their rights extending as far back as “time immemorial.”
But the federal courts left it up to the Oregon Water Resources Department to decide how much water the tribes could claim in the streams, rivers and 140 springs located within the 2.3 million acres currently honored as their ancestral land.
It took 38 years for the water resources department’s determination in the process known as the Klamath Basin Adjudication. Testimony from hydrologists and biologists helped determine how much water tribes needed to maintain a healthy ecosystem capable of supporting a healthy fishery consistent with the tribes treaty rights.
By 2013, with the adjudication behind them, the Klamath Tribes began fully enforcing their water rights for the first time. The level of water Klamath Tribes are legally allowed to claim is higher than what the Endangered Species Act indicates is necessary, which has led to frustration on the part of irrigators. But lawyers for tribes point out that the intention of the Act is to ensure species survival. Treaty rights guarantee a thriving fishery.
Once Klamath Tribes have claimed what they’d like to keep in-stream and flowing to the Upper Klamath Lake, the Bureau of Reclamation must try to balance the ESA’s obligations to the c’waam, koptu and the protected salmon that swim up the Klamath River.
For thousands of years, the Yurok, Kanuk and Hoopa tribes’ traditions and livelihoods have revolved around coho and chinook salmon. The two protected salmon species—spring chinook that run from the ocean to the Klamath River were just listed as threatened this spring by the California Fish and Game Commission—depend on water from the Upper Klamath Lake to flush out a deadly pathogen prevalent in the river during low water years.
The salmon runs on the Klamath are less than five percent of what they were hundreds of years ago, according to the Yurok tribe. And this spring, with no flush of water, an abnormally high number of juvenile salmon have died in the Klamath River. “It’s gut wrenching,” said Myers.
On the Yurok reservation in California, the median income is $11,000 and a healthy fishery of fall chinook allows families to earn money by selling salmon to restaurants and markets. Five out of the last six years, commercial fishing has been canceled due to low fish runs.
“Over the millenia we’ve learned that salmon are the keystone species to the environment we live in,” Myers said. “If you lose salmon, the species that transfers nutrients from the mountains to the ocean and vice versa, you end up with a collapse of the environment. And I think we’re on the verge of that.”
In dry years, the salmon often compete for water that’s being held back for c’waam and koptu.
Farmers hold junior water rights. And are third in line for water.
Even with water being held for the c’waam and koptu, the water in Upper Klamath Lake, where they live, will likely reach a soupy 85-degrees this summer. A blue-green algae will blanket the surface, and dissolved oxygen will plummet so low that the juvenile fish will occasionally surface and gulp air to survive, tucking the air bubble in their gills. Adult fish, Gonyaw said, hug the bottom of the lake and either tough it out, or suffocate and die.
Conflict at the Canal?
Inside a red and white tent on a dirt lot adjacent to the “A” Canal, Dan Nielsen pulls up a picture of an industrial crane on his phone. That, he says, is what he’ll use to pry open the “A” Canal to get farmers some water. Security has gotten tighter since the 2001 protests, but Nielsen, who owns a trucking company and farms 40 acres in the Klamath Project, said he fundamentally believes that water belongs to farmers. He, along with a fellow protester, bought the dirt lot, and Nielsen has been living on it in a gold Patriot Thunder model RV. He’s dubbed the protest site the “water crisis information center.” Typically, there’s only a handful of people at the tent, and a groundhog that surfaces at dusk.
Ammon Bundy, known for his armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in 2016, has publicly supported Nielsen’s efforts to fight what he says is the federal government stealing from farmers for fish protected by the ESA.
“You’re telling me a 1973 law trumps a 1905 water right?” Nielsen asked. A companion in the tent chimed in, referring to suckerfish as “mudfish” and saying, “I don’t know anyone who even eats them anymore.” (The Klamath Tribes stopped harvesting c’waam and koptu in 1986, aware that populations were decreasing.)
For a short time, it seemed Bundy might spur another standoff in the Klamath Basin. But no major demonstrations have yet occurred, and Bundy, a resident of Idaho who spouts a far-right, anti-government ideology, recently filed to run for governor in Idaho.
Most farmers aren’t publicly aligning themselves with Nielsen’s protest, largely because of Bundy. “He doesn’t farm here. He doesn’t pass dry fields,” said DuVal. “He’s just looking for a stage to push his political agenda.”
Protests have been effective in helping irrigators in the past. Last year, irrigators were initially told they’d receive 140,000 acre feet of water, or 40 percent of a full allotment. By May, that number had been slashed to about 60,000 acres because inflow to Upper Klamath was lower than anticipated.
The farmers organized a tractor parade that stretched nearly 30 miles. American flags and Trump banners adorned trucks and tractors as they rolled through farm country. With a nudge from the Trump administration, and slightly improved inflow projections, the Bureau of Reclamation ended up releasing a total of about 140,000 acre feet.
There’s a story that some farmers in the project share about how in the late 1940s, the last bit of the Klamath Project was being homesteaded to veterans. Five-thousand applicants applied for plots. Names were stuffed into a pickle jar and 131 lucky ones were picked. Some families moved into squat barracks that had been part of a Japanese-American internment camp during the war.
Ben DuVal’s grandfather, Gaylord DuVal, put his name in that pickle jar largely because the project came with the assurance of irrigation water. Farmers today pay about $75 per acre each year for maintenance of the project, even with zero water delivered. “I don’t think the project (farmers) should get as much water as they want,” said DuVal. “But there’s no balance in this.”
This summer, project farmers have plans to idle some land. After 2001, dozens of wells were drilled and DuVal says groundwater is being pumped. The Bureau of Reclamation committed $15 million in aid for farmers through the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, with an additional $3 million for assistance to tribes. In mid-June, irrigators, tribes along the Klamath River and commercial salmon fishermen made a joint request to Congress for $160 million in drought-related relief.
Irrigators recently sued the Oregon Water Resources Department claiming that because the water belongs to the state of Oregon, state law should govern the water and the state should release it to those who hold the rights to use stored water in Upper Klamath Lake, in other words, the farmers. A circuit court judge sided with irrigators in the spring. The resources department intends to appeal.
Nielsen said the outcome of that court case will determine whether or not he tries to forcibly open the canal. “We’re protecting private property,” said Nielsen. “They can’t take our private property because they made an obligation to someone else.”
Don Gentry, the Klamath Tribes chairman, said he finds that logic troubling.
“Why should we feel like we’re less than?” he said. “We’re citizens. If you’re concerned about inalienable rights and property rights, stick up for the tribes, and the treaty rights that they retained from being the first people on the land.”
His sister, Joey Gentry, who doesn’t speak for the tribes but said she was willing to share her personal opinions, organized a rally in May that underlined that point.
She carried a sign in large black and red lettering. “Ecocide is cultural genocide,” it said.
A Path Forward
There are some in the Klamath Basin hoping for a KBRA 2.0.
Don Gentry says the Klamath Tribes are not jumping at that prospect, largely because a lot has changed since those negotiations more than a decade ago. Back then, the Klamath Basin Adjudication was still ongoing. The tribe didn’t know how much water they’d be able to hold back for fish habitat. The KBRA was “a risk management kind of approach,” Gentry said.
And while maintaining higher water levels since adjudication hasn’t led juvenile fish populations to rebound, biologists with the tribe believe enforcing their water rights has allowed adult c’waam and koptu to hang on. “The way I look at it,” said Gentry, “is (the adult fish) would be in worse shape or maybe not even here.”
With just a few thousand koptu left, the tribe can not reengage in a water sharing settlement, Gentry said, adding that a plan that downsizes agriculture and focuses on water quality might earn tribal support.
DuVal and other farmers view the tribe’s current position as stubborn, even “vindictive,” DuVal said, as he drove through Tulelake farmland one recent afternoon. He bristles at the idea of fallowing land. “That’s a touchy subject,” he said. “When I hear ‘downsize,’ it’s a face to me. It’s a person I know.”
Hannah Gosnell, a professor at Oregon State University, has been studying water conflict in the Klamath Basin for 15 years. “As hard as it is to say, I don’t think you can keep up historic levels of irrigation, it’s just not tenable,” she said. “Given the ESA listings, it may not even have been tenable when we didn’t have climate change and recurring drought. Klamath Lake at the end of every summer is typically shrunk down 75 percent. So it’s no wonder the suckers can’t reproduce. It’s been treated like a reservoir more than an ecosystem.”
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, has not indicated that overhauling The Klamath Project or orchestrating a water-sharing agreement is a priority.
Joey Gentry, 50, comes to this decades-long conflict with a unique perspective. After several years in Portland, she returned to southern Oregon to farm hemp, a plant that uses far less water than alfalfa and other traditional crops.“I got on the tractor in the field, and I thought, I am no longer employable in an office,” she said, laughing. “It feels so good to do that kind of work.”
Gentry grew up steeped in tribal traditions, and recalls fishing with her father to ensure that their family had dinner. She also remembers when her father started throwing c’waam and koptu back in the water because he knew the fish were in trouble.
“It’s an indicator species. I look at it as a check engine light. The fact that they are getting closer to extinction in every season is a sign we are destroying our ecosystem,” said Gentry. “On a human level, especially a farmer should understand the interconnectedness of all living things,”
She added, “Every creature on this planet serves a purpose. Who are we to decide which species gets thrust into extinction? On a cultural level, let’s call it what it is—it’s settler colonialism.”
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning, localized climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.
You will be redirected to ICN’s donation partner.
Recently, she was chatting with a farmer she befriended a couple months earlier. “I said, ‘how are you?’ I genuinely care. No one wants to see farmers in this situation,” she said. As they spoke, she started thinking about the whole picture—not just zero irrigation, not just struggling fish species, but a basin stressed beyond its means.
“We can fix this,” she remembers blurting to the farmer. She says he took off his hat, rubbed his head and mentioned that a small group of irrigators were informally meeting up to talk water. He called it “breakfast and bullshiting.” The farmer asked if maybe one day she’d like to come. Joey Gentry’s thinking about it.