‘Everyone Loses’: The Government Is Rationing Water at the California-Oregon Border

A major drought has forced farmers and Indigenous tribes to compete for water in a situation nobody ever wanted.
April 26, 2021, 1:00pm
‘Everyone Loses’: The Government Is Rationing Water at the California-Oregon Border

Along the Oregon-California border, the Klamath River Basin is a crucial water source for Indigenous tribes, endangered species, and farmers. This year, though, there is simply not enough to go around. 

The Western US is enduring another major drought, and the Klamath River Basin is at a historic low. This resulted in different groups being forced to compete and make their case for why water, now precious and scarce, should be diverted to their needs. It's a stark reminder of the tough, no-win decisions that citizens will continue to face amid the worsening climate crisis. 

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The Klamath Tribe contended that the water needs to stay in the lake to protect two endangered fish, the C’waam (Lost River sucker) and Koptu (shortnose sucker). The Yurok Tribe, to the south, said that more water needs to flow to the Klamath River, which is home to many fish species including the threatened Coho salmon. The Klamath Project, a collection of farms in the region, implored that they need water to irrigate crops or else face the possibility of folding after failing to deliver on their contracts with suppliers. 

“This water year is unlike anything the Project has ever seen,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, Deputy Commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, which made the decision about water use, in a press release

On April 15, the US Bureau of Reclamation decided that protections from the Endangered Species Act won out over the desires of the irrigators. The C’waam and Koptu need the water levels in Upper Klamath Lake to be kept high in order to spawn and escape the worst of the poor water quality. The Bureau of Reclamation is ordering that the lake be kept at the very minimum of the biological requirement, in order to allow some water to flow to the salmon in the Klamath River. For the farms, just 33,000 acre-feet was allocated, the lowest in 20 years and enough to meet only a fraction of their needs.  

No one wanted it to be this way: each group backed into separate corners, arguing about who deserves water more. This is a particularly bad water year, but many fear that climate change will make such low precipitation a new normal. Already, the rules of the Basin are changing. The snowpack and rainfall were low this year, and inflows into the lake hit the lowest point ever recorded. In this already stressed system, Tribal members are cautioning against using old hydrological estimates to predict future management. Climate change is projected to decrease snowpack and runoff and increase temperatures, meaning less water to satisfy more demand. 

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The future of the water in the Klamath River Basin is unclear as the different groups seek a long-term solution. In 2010, after years of compromises, the tribes and the Klamath project signed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) to decide the future of water management in the region. The plan went to Congress, where it wasn’t signed by the deadline, and it died. 

Now, a path forward in a warming world is even more urgently needed. 

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The fight over the water in the Klamath River Basin pitted conservation against agriculture. Farmers are facing dry lands and looming contracts with grocery stores and companies such as FritoLay that they may not be able to fulfill, while Indigenous tribes are contending with the possible loss of important fish species.

The C’waam and Koptu fish, which are endemic to Upper Klamath Lake, are central to the Klamath Tribe’s creation story. The tribe believes that the fish were created to sustain their people. The C’waam and Koptu used to be a main source of food for the tribe, numbering in the millions. Now, as a result of poor water quality and chronic low water levels, they are endangered, and the Klamath can only catch two each year for ceremonial purposes

“We will do everything necessary to protect the C’waam and Koptu, which are of the utmost importance to our people,” said Tribal Council Vice Chair Gail Hatcher in an April 13 press release. “In this historically bad water year the consequences of decades of mismanagement are coming home to roost; Reclamation’s failure to provide the bare minimum conditions necessary for their survival is unconscionable.”

“We have fished these same runs of salmon since the beginning of time”

The C’waam and Koptu have been fighting an uphill battle for years. As a result of poor water quality, toxic algae blooms, and low water levels, the juveniles die before they can reproduce. Few breeding populations are left for either species, and all of them were born in the 1990s. These fish are approaching the end of their expected lifespan, according to Jay Weiner, attorney for the Klamath Tribe. If they die, there are no fish to replace them with. 

The C’waam and Koptu are more endangered than the salmon to the south, and Weiner said that the fish are at genuine risk of a single-year extinction event. With the stakes so high, the Klamath Tribe—which has senior water rights in the Upper Klamath Basin—insisted that the suckers be prioritized. 

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“We have been screaming to the United States to manage the project more responsibly for years so that we would not end up in a situation like this, where the needs of the C’waam and the Koptu in the lake are pitted directly against the needs of the salmon in the river because of how little water there is,” said Weiner. 

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The C'waam. Image: Taylor R. Tupper / Klamath Tribes News Dept.

Within that goal, however, the Klamath people also wanted as much as possible to go to the salmon and their neighboring Yurok Tribe. They don’t see this as a battle of tribe versus tribe, and are deeply interested in the salmon rebounding. 

Indeed, to the Yurok Tribe, the survival of the salmon is existential. Just like the C’waam and Koptu for the Klamath Tribe, the fish are tightly bound in the Yurok’s creation story. The river would provide for the Yurok people, the creator told them, as long as they lived in balance with it. 

“Because we have always as a people been on these rivers, we have fished these same runs of salmon since the beginning of time,” said Amy Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe’s general counsel. “It’s a very unique relationship that initially started with us relying on them. Now they are relying on us because we have to speak for them to save them.” 

The Yurok uses the Klamath for subsistence and commercial fisheries, providing the basis for their entire economy. Now, with the river in such bad shape, they are starting to see the economic tolls. With dams and development interfering with habitat, salmon have been struggling. Recently, a new threat has emerged: Ceratonova shasta, a deadly parasite that is decimating salmon populations in the Klamath River

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C. shasta thrives in river environments that are stable, where there aren’t a lot of flow variations. In the past few years, as the Bureau of Reclamation has struggled to keep the lake full and divert water to agriculture, the river has seen less floods and lower flows. 

“Where the water is is as important to a river as the blood in your veins is to your health,” said Michael Belchik, senior water policy analyst for the Yurok Tribe. “Rivers move more than just water. The sediment movement is crucial in the ecology of the river.”

Belchik, along with a team of scientists at Oregon State University, keep track of the spore counts in the water. Last week, the team counted 73 spores per liter, and 5 spores is when they start raising the alarm. With salmon in the Klamath down to 5-10 percent of their historical runs, the Yurok are preparing to lose this entire year class. Warming temperatures, too, threaten to decrease salmon habitat.  

“We’re going to lose some farms this year”

Meanwhile, farmers in the region are between a rock and a hard place. The ground is completely dry, said Mark Johnson, the deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association. Many farms are worried that their crops—usually potatoes or alfalfa—won’t grow. 

Some farms have contracts with big companies like In n’ Out and FritoLay, others with grocery stores. If they can’t fulfill their contracts, they may lose them. Without contracts, some farms may fold. 

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“We’re going to lose some farms this year,” Johnson said simply. 

For farmers, this year looks to be a devastating repeat of 2001. That year, the Klamath Project got absolutely no water in order to preserve fish species. In protest, farmers organized a bucket brigade, passing buckets of water from the lake to canals. It became a talking point for Republicans to criticize the Endangered Species Act, and a cause celebre for anti-government militants. 

“In 2001, we lost a lot of farms,” Johnson said. “Since then, a lot of the younger generation who should be farming right now just will not come back to the Basin to farm knowing the restrictive conditions that we have.”

The Klamath Project is one of the oldest Reclamation projects in the country, and many farmers and ranchers have been in the Basin for generations. Starting in the early 1900s, the U.S. federal offered Basin land to settlers in order to grow crops needed for the growing western population. Later, they offered land to war veterans. 

“Everyone loses in this situation,” Johnson said. “We’re just looking for a long-term solution that guarantees sustainable irrigation to the Basin.” 

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The Klamath Basin is stretched beyond its capacity. Each stakeholder—the Klamath Tribe, the Yurok Tribe, and the Klamath Project—has expressed sympathy for the plight of the other, and ultimately places the blame on the federal government. 

For over a century, the US government has been making competing promises: ensuring Tribal rights to water while luring farmers to the basin with the promise that generations to come would be able to live off the land. To do so, they borrowed from the future: draining the aquifer and diverting the water until drought left the Basin dry, without water to recharge the system. The Basin was never built to handle all these needs. 

Like the Klamath Tribe, the Yurok are not interested in pitting tribe against tribe, species survival against species survival. Faced with the harsh reality of desperately needing water that they likely won’t get, the Yurok people are looking to a long history of mistreatment and broken promises from the federal government. 

“In the creation of the Yurok reservation, we reserved that right to economy, to the fishing way of life,” Cordalis said. “That created an obligation for the federal government to protect our interests on our reservation, and they never did.”

The Klamath has similar frustrations. Even before Endangered Species Act restrictions, the Klamath Tribe has treaty rights that they believe have long been disrespected. In 1864, they gave a large chunk of their land to the federal government in exchange for water rights, which should have guaranteed the maintenance of a healthy fishery. 

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Right now, everyone is just trying to make it through this year. The Klamath Tribe sees the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision—which prevents the lake from dipping under 4,138.3 feet—as the minimum possible protection for the suckerfish. This is less than the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion requires, which the Klamath Tribe already believes to be insufficient. The tribe is suing the Bureau of Reclamation in retaliation. 

The Yurok does not expect anything more than the bare minimum to keep the river—and the salmon—alive. They are hanging onto a sliver of hope: four of the six dams on the Klamath are set to be removed by 2024, which would be a huge help for the salmon. 

For the farmers and ranchers of the Klamath Project, the best they can hope for is relief. Johnson said that the 33,000 acre-feet that was allocated to the Klamath project was barely enough to charge a canal, let alone irrigate over 200,000 acres of land. 

“To put in perspective, in a normal year in these drought conditions, we would divert up to 400,000 acre-feet of water,” Johnson said. “It is a pretty dire situation.”

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The Bureau of Reclamation set aside $15 million in immediate relief for the Klamath Project. 

Looking forward, everyone agrees that they need a more sustainable solution. Long-term, the Klamath Tribe see a real issue with the way that the Basin is managed by the government. Weiner said that, from the tribe’s perspective, the Bureau of Reclamation sees leaving water in the lake as the last possible option, extracting all it can for agriculture and for flushing the river. 

“These dry years are not aberrations. These are new conditions that the Klamath Basin needs to live with,” said Weiner. “To treat it like a single year crisis ignores the fact that what’s going on in the Basin is fundamentally unsustainable.”

“Everyone loses in this situation”

According to Weiner, the Klamath Tribe is not interested in negotiating a second restoration agreement that looks anything like the first one. In the KBRA, the Klamath Tribe intended to give up some of their water rights in exchange for restoration work. Now, facing increasing drought and uncertain conditions for their suckerfish, they feel they have no water to give. Weiner said that the Klamath Tribe is looking to the Klamath Project to create a less water-intensive budget. 

Johnson said that the farmers are eager to find a solution that works for everyone in the Basin. He, like members of the Yurok and Klamath Tribes, are disappointed that the KBRA failed to make it through Congress. He is tired of the yearly fighting over water allocation, he said. Besides, the lines aren’t so neatly drawn: there are Tribal members who are farmers and ranchers, and all those living in the Basin are concerned with the health of the ecosystem. 

“Everyone loses in this situation,” Johnson said. “We’re just looking for a long-term solution that guarantees sustainable irrigation to the Basin.”

According to Cordalis, the land is worth the effort. 

“People will be like, ‘Oh this is America, why don't you move?’” Cordalis said. “We’re Yurok people, we’re meant to be on this river. That’s where our ancestors are, that's where we are. We would rather die fighting to rebuild it, and that's kind of what we’re doing.”