2001: No refuge in the Klamath Basin

  • EMBATTLED: Farmers and supporters in Klamath Falls, Oregon, protest for more water to keep their crops alive

    Jan Jackson
  • SAFE HAVEN? Snow geese and Canada geese at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, California

    Tupper Ansel Blake photo from the book Balancing Water: Restoring the Klamath Basin
  • THREATENED LIVES: Hip-high in irrigation boots, potato farmer Jess Prosser from Tulelake, California, dips water from lake Ewauna in Klamath Falls, Oregon, in defiance of a court order banning irrgation

    Gary Thain photo, Klamath Falls Herald and News
  • A gadwall duck and her brood find dirt in a canal that usually supplies water to Klamath Basin refuge wetlands

    USFWS photo by D. Menke
  • DRYING OUT: Dust devils swirl through fields near Klamath Falls

    Ron Winn photo, Klamath Falls Herald and News
  • STILL WATERS: A Klamath Indian floats along the shoreline marshes of Klamath Lake, circa 1923

    photo courtesy Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's "The North American Indian": the Photographic Images
  • Map of Klamath River Basin

    Diane Sylvain

LOWER KLAMATH NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Calif. - Wildlife biologist Tim Griffiths leans out his truck window, squints at the bright, scorching sun, and shakes his head with wonder. Yellow-headed blackbirds perch on slender cattails, bald eagles swoop through the sky, and white pelicans dunk their tugboat-size beaks in the shallow water.

"This place is pure magic," says Griffiths of the refuge that hosts 80 percent of all wildfowl in the Pacific Flyway and winters the largest concentration of bald eagles in the continental United States.

There are times during the year, he says, when the sky turns black as the sun disappears behind waves of birds that roll overhead. But this fall, when over 1.5 million birds return on their southern migration, the waterfowl had best make reservations at a Holiday Inn. What should be a sea of over 25 blue marshes has diminished to three small ponds. Reeds rise out of dry wetland bottoms like a crewcut on a balding man. A sign that cautions "Deep water" sticks out of a barren and cracked mud bank. Surrounding the refuge lie fallow fields where birds once foraged for grain.

A terrible drought and the needs of three species of endangered fish mean that this bleak scene is not about to improve. In early spring, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of water allocation, ordered that the majority of available water remain in the region's waterways. That's good news for fishers and Native American tribes hundreds of miles downstream in the Lower Klamath Basin, who usually see scant salmon runs and dry rivers due to irrigation. But the news has thrown farming towns in the Upper Basin into chaos.

Food bank supplies have been stretched thin to feed families, and social service agencies report that cases of depression and domestic violence have jumped. In towns like Klamath Falls, Ore., population 17,000, and Tulelake, Calif., population 1,000, businesses have closed and school enrollments have dropped by as much as 30 percent. Native Americans and agency staffers who support the Bureau of Reclamation's action have been refused restaurant service, and some say they worry about their safety.

The unrest boiled over in early July, when hundreds of farmers and their supporters used torches and crowbars to open the headgates of an irrigation canal four times in one week. Local sheriffs and police stood by, claiming lack of jurisdiction. Now National Park Service police and FBI agents guard the headwaters, but that hasn't deterred the farmers. They are laying a pipeline that will take water from Upper Klamath Lake directly to the irrigation ditches, bypassing the headgates.

Griffiths, 25, who grew up in this basin, is also frustrated. The decision to protect the endangered fish - two species of sucker and the coho salmon - will also limit water to the Klamath refuges and adversely affect 430 other species.

"When I was studying conservation management at Oregon State University, they drilled it into my head that you manage for the ecosystem and that if you manage for one species you're in trouble," says Griffiths, who works for the nonprofit hunting group, the California Wildfowl Association. "Why did they teach that in college if it's not being practiced in the real world?"

Griffiths says the recent events in the basin have made him rethink the most important law wildlife advocates have in their toolbox: the Endangered Species Act.

The law should be more flexible, he says, a viewpoint expressed by an array of biologists, community leaders, local politicians and agency staffers. Even Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, D, the only governor in the region to support breaching four dams on the Snake River for endangered salmon, wants to overhaul the law.

"The biggest problem with the Endangered Species Act ... is how (it) is implemented," Kitzhaber told a crowd of angry farmers in mid-April. "I don't intend to stand by and see this community or the children in this community become extinct."

Suddenly, the remote and long-ignored Klamath River Basin has become a flashpoint for the 28-year-old Act. People throughout the West who have felt the bite of the regulatory law are rallying around the Klamath farmers and calling for reform.

The mainstream media have been quick to frame the conflict as one of farmers vs. fish, but the issue is far more complicated. There is a long history in the Klamath of trying to stretch a finite water supply to meet the needs of farmers, Indians and wildlife, and for most of the last century the farmers have had priority. Now, three endangered fish have been pushed to the front of the line, and life in the Klamath may never be the same.

The end of an era

From a small airplane flying at 1,000 feet, it's hard to believe that the Klamath Basin is short on water. Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon's largest freshwater lake, is the center of a spiderweb of waterways - rivers, canals, sloughs and the watery wetlands of six Klamath Basin wildlife refuges.

But the luscious display of sparkling waters from this altitude is deceiving. To get a forecast of the valley's moisture, one must fly into the mountains and look for snow. As early as last March, that forecast looked bleak: The mountains surrounding the basin had only 21 percent of normal snowpack, indicating that the area's worst drought in a century was on its way.

Even so, up until the last minute, biologist Griffiths and many locals believed the Bureau would come through for the 1,400 farm families just as it always had. Many of these farmers are the descendants of WWI and WWII veterans who were promised land and plenty of water if they would relocate to the Klamath. As participants in the second-oldest Bureau of Reclamation project in the country, Klamath residents took water delivery for granted.

But in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its biological opinion for the endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers, two bottom-feeding fish that live in Upper Klamath Lake. The FWS found that in order to recover the species, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must hold Upper Klamath Lake at a higher level than last year. At the same time, the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended the Bureau spill more water out of the lake to increase flows in the lower Klamath River in order to protect threatened coho salmon habitat.

As the drought deepened, the two agencies told the Bureau that in order to maintain the recommended flows, it would have to cut off the water to the farmers and refuges. Still, farmers and refuge managers were optimistic that the Bureau would ignore the other agency's recommendations.

Local politicians did everything in their power to ensure that it did. They tried to force a review of the biological opinions, even appealing to Vice President Dick Cheney, who in turn asked 80 federal biologists to review the decision. Cheney ultimately modified the Bureau's operating plan, thus allowing 70,000 acre-feet of water to farmers east of Klamath Falls. But the majority of farmers within the federal Klamath Basin project - and the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake wildlife refuges - remained waterless.

When Phil Norton, manager of all six refuges in the Klamath Basin, heard the news, he remembers thinking, "It's going to be a long, hot summer."

The farmers didn't accept the situation. They sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, claiming that, by not delivering water, the federal government broke its U.S. Reclamation Project trust agreement. But a federal judge refused to override the Bureau of Reclamation decision and on April 4 ruled that if the agency delivered any additional water it would violate the Endangered Species Act.

Two days later, ironically on one of the season's rainiest days, Bureau of Reclamation officials announced that the agency could not supply irrigation water and at the same time meet the overriding needs of threatened fish.

"We've been delivering water in this community for 94 years in a row; for this to happen is just tragic," says Jeff McCracken of the Bureau of Reclamation. "Our hands were tied by Mother Nature and the law."

A manufactured landscape

In the past, the Bureau of Reclamation refused to let Mother Nature stand in the way.

When the first white settlers arrived in the late 1800s, the Upper Klamath Basin was covered by approximately 187,000 acres of shallow lakes - collectively bigger than Nevada's Lake Tahoe. Believing that prime farmland lay underneath those wetlands, homesteaders began to drain and dike the land. By 1905, the newly created Bureau of Reclamation began transforming the landscape.

The Bureau drained 80 percent of the wetlands in the southern basin, built seven dams, 18 canals, 45 pumping plants, and 516 miles of irrigation ditches. Eventually, the Klamath Reclamation Project covered 230,000 acres of the 400,000 acres of farmland in the basin.

In this artificial system, the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath wildlife refuges were an afterthought created after the reclamation project, to keep birds away from grainfields. But the refuges had no water rights, and so, by the 1920s, Lower Klamath Lake was bone-dry. It wasn't until the homesteads surrounding Tule Lake were in danger of floods in rainy years that in 1942 the Bureau of Reclamation drilled a tunnel through a ridge and began pumping water back into the Klamath refuge.

"The only reason Lower Klamath came back as a refuge is because the Bureau was worried about its farmers," says Robert Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate whose dissertation is on the history of refuge management along the Pacific Flyway.

William Kittredge, a writer and professor at the University of Montana who grew up in the Klamath Basin, describes the system as "incredibly managed." The water, he says, "goes up and down and all around."

It is not surprising that, by the 1970s, the native fish were having a hard time. Not only had flow regimes been disrupted, but water quality had declined dramatically due to pesticides, fertilizers and animal waste in the watershed. Extensive clear-cutting along the Klamath River silted the river, causing warm temperatures and low flows. By 1985, commercial fishing was banned from some coastal areas to protect declining coho salmon. Three years later, a coalition of environmentalists and tribes convinced the federal government to list the shortnose and Lost River suckers as endangered.

In the years that followed, as fish runs continued to decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation failed to enforce federal flow standards or to regulate pesticide use on the leased farmland within the refuges.

Then, in 1991 and 1994, drought hit the basin. Due to the listing of the fish under the Endangered Species Act, for the first time since 1905, the Bureau cut the farmers' water.

"Suddenly, people realized that these water problems were going to come home to roost," says Kittredge. "Nobody had really gotten their head around the idea that they'd have to change."

In response to the 1994 drought, then-Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, R, appointed a 27-person working group to develop ways to restore the ecosystem, maintain the economy, and reduce the impacts of future droughts. The consensus group has created several wetland restoration projects in the Upper Basin and helped to facilitate dialogue between disparate parts of the community. But since Hatfield left office in 1996, the federal agencies haven't given the group enough money to make significant changes, says Alice Kilham, one of the group's original leaders. And still fish runs have declined. In 1997, the government listed the coho salmon as threatened, and between 1995 and 1997, the shortnose and Lost River sucker fish declined by as much as 90 percent.

Now, at long last there is substantive action, but not the type the working group wants, says Kilham.

"It's a tragedy we've come to this," she says. "This is a terrible way to have these things worked out."

"I don't believe we can have consensus and conservation when we have a community in chaos," says refuge manager Phil Norton. "I'll freely admit I think the ESA should be tweaked; everybody's losing under this."

Larry Dunsmore, a biologist for the Klamath tribe, who also served on the Hatfield group, agrees.

"The ESA has totally polarized the situation at a time when what we need is significant restoration that requires buy-in from the private landowners," says Dunsmore. "I can't help but wonder if we'll look back at this time as a step forward or a step back."

Farmers fume

Ask most farmers in the Upper Basin, and they'll quickly answer that the recent regulatory action has been a leap away from consensus.

"I've been at the table for 10 years, I've put thousands of miles in my pickup, and now they've got all the water and I've got nothing," says Don Russell, director of the Enterprise Irrigation District and the Klamath Basin Water Users Association. "Those enviro groups and those California tribes found a way to use the ESA to hurt farming. We'll never be able to work with those folks anymore."

Russell sits with farmer James L. Moore at his kitchen table, drinking sun tea - "the only thing we have an abundance of," they joke. The two have known each other since high school, and as they stare out the kitchen window at Moore's 170 acres of browning alfalfa fields, they fume.

"The Bureau totally betrayed us. The agency could have stood up and said (to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), 'Your science stinks,' but it didn't," says Russell, mopping his brow. "I feel funny putting my hand over my heart and saying 'my land of liberty.' "

Moore nods, sighing deeply. A descendant of one of the original homesteaders in Klamath Falls, he has some of the oldest water rights in the basin. He never expected that the Bureau wouldn't deliver his contracted water, so he didn't drill a well as some farmers have (see story next page). Without water, Moore says, his land has decreased in value from $2,000 to $20 an acre.

"I've already lost my alfalfa crop; that's about $20,000 down the tubes," says Moore. He grips the contract his grandfather signed with the government, which had promised that his heirs would always have water. "I don't have any reserve kitty, just many hard years in ag. Nobody wants to walk away, but what can I do?"

What some are doing is mounting a campaign to dissolve what they say is the root of all this evil: the Endangered Species Act. Homemade signs line the roads of Klamath Falls, Merrill and Tulelake: "Community destroyed courtesy of the ESA," "Whatever happened to the American Dream?" and "Endangered community, amend the ESA."

"If we don't put the skids on the species act, it will shut this country down," says Russell, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., to garner support for his cause. He and a group of other farmers in the area want Congress to make federal biological opinions subject to independent scientific review, and to make all scientific studies public before listing decisions are made.

Russell thinks the farmers have a chance. They have an ally in Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who has ordered the National Academy of Scientists to review the science behind the agency recommendations to shut off the water this year. And Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Wally Herger, R-Calif., and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., have sponsored legislation to amend the ESA. A bipartisan working group in the House of Representatives is currently examining ESA reform.

"I definitely think it will be amended," says Joan Smith, a Siskiyou, Calif., county commissioner. "I don't think when the ESA was written it was meant to annihilate communities, and that's what is happening here."

The act gets the job done

But many downriver water users and environmentalists counter that other communities in the basin have been hurt by Upper Basin water use.

"The Endangered Species Act is working exactly like it's supposed to. It's helping us find a balance between the different needs in the basin," says Jan Hasselman of the nonprofit Earthjustice. "The BuRec has given the irrigators every drop of water they've needed since (the agency) opened shop in 1905, but the government has obligations to different people in the basin besides the irrigators."

Troy Fletcher, chairman of the Yurok tribe, says his people's treaty rights to healthy fish populations have long been ignored. Fletcher grew up on the banks of the Klamath River, and it was there that he learned to fish for steelhead and coho salmon, the lifeblood of his impoverished tribe.

"Eighty percent of the reservation is without electricity or phones; the nearest grocery store is two hours away for some tribal members. We subsist on fishing and not much else," says Fletcher. "One of the most offensive things to me is when I hear of the 'poor farmers.' When we get into the poorest of the poor, we're gonna win that fight."

For the last nine years, Fletcher has been working to convince the federal government to put more water in the river to help declining salmon runs. His tribe has studied river flows and fall chinook salmon; developed a watershed restoration project that decommissions roads; upgraded culverts and planted trees in riparian areas; and closed its fishery up to three days a week. But other basin water users have not reformed, says Fletcher.

"I was far more optimistic early on; I just thought people would want to follow the law and that anyone could understand that pesticides and 80-degree water temperature aren't good for salmon, but I think I've matured now," says Fletcher, 38. "Every one of those state agencies has tried to lessen the impacts on farmers and hasn't stood up for us."

Fletcher says that even with the ESA, his tribe has an uphill fight to restore healthy salmon runs. What's needed, he says, is more water, even in a year with normal precipitation.

Low river levels have also changed Paula Yoon's life. A former commercial fisher, Yoon smiles broadly as she talks about the years she and her husband fished for steelhead and coho salmon in Coos Bay.

"My husband's first gift to me was three big fish; they were beautiful," says Yoon, who lives in Bayside, Calif. "That's the best part, sharing the fish."

But in the late 1980s, the fish runs had declined so drastically that she went back to school, and her husband began spending summers fishing in Alaska. In 1991, he was killed there in an accident while crabbing.

"That made me think a fisherman should never have to leave his shores to provide for his family," says Yoon, who has two children. "We need to learn to live sustainably in our region and feed ourselves."

Yoon agrees with Fletcher that reducing agricultural demand in the Upper Basin will help fish runs in the Lower Basin, but she says that is just a first step. Now that people on both ends of the river have been hurt by the overallocation of water, Yoon hopes all the water users will be motivated to come up with a solution.

"Unfortunately, it takes the ESA and a crisis until we go through the anger and denial phase, and then we realize that's not going to get us anywhere, and we have to work together," says Yoon. "The ESA is not just related to species that are endangered, but it's necessary for helping us as humans who are dependent on those species."

That is the crux of why amending the Act is a bad idea, says Don Berry, former undersecretary of the Interior under Secretary Bruce Babbitt. If it were left to local agency folks, they wouldn't be able to stand up to local pressure and "eat their broccoli," says Berry. "Take the spotted owl or the Northwest salmon - we should not have gotten there on the legs of the ESA." But there is no other mechanism besides the Act to determine when an ecosystem is in trouble, he says.

Other conservationists agree.

"You can gut the ESA, but at the end of the day that doesn't create more water," says Jim Walton of the Wilderness Society.

Manifesting change

Environmentalists in the Klamath Basin are looking beyond the Endangered Species Act to on-the-ground solutions.

Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council wants Congress to pay willing sellers $4,000 an acre for their reclaimed land. Currently, land prices have hit rock bottom due to the water shortage, but Wood says that if Congress would buy the land for a price above the market rate, the money could help some farmers to make a transition into new careers.

Many locals say this could be their only option. In the global economy, farmers are having a hard time selling their potatoes, alfalfa and sugar beets, even when they have the water to raise them.

"A lot of people are right on the edge of bankruptcy," says John Anderson a Tulelake native who has been raising mint and cattle for 31 years. "A lot of us are now saying, let's try and work to come up with something that we can get broad-based support for."

Anderson says selling part of his land and water to the government makes sense, if he is promised that at least a portion of his water will be available, despite drought or endangered fish.

"If I don't have an assurance like this, I won't have any contracts (with people who want to buy my mint) and I don't think I'll be able to recover."

Already, more than two dozen farmers have agreed that they would sell. That means nearly 90,000 acre-feet of water could be left in the rivers and wetlands. And Anderson says that if the program were in place, more people would negotiate, making more water available for fish.

But many say the potential $200 million program isn't an ideal solution. Alice Kilham worries that it will create a patchwork of wetlands within farmland, which will help neither the farmer nor the wildlife. "We need to plan, so that we know where we want farms and where it makes sense to have refuges."

Tim Griffiths says that the willing-seller program won't increase the amount of water in the basin, because restoring the farms to wetlands will require just as much water as farming.

"You're not going to alleviate the water-storage problem unless you say 'no water on these lands,' " says Griffiths. "But then there's going to be a weed field, and that's very poor-quality habitat."

The only solution, says Griffiths, is for people on both sides of the issue to settle for less. That means farmers will have to accept that they may not always get their full allotment of water, and "extreme environmentalists" will have to realize that even with the willing-seller program, they will not be able to restore the basin to a pre-farming state.

"All I know is, it's a circus here right now," says Griffiths, "and we need people to be willing to compromise."

But that may take some time. So far, no legislators have agreed to carry a bill for the willing-seller program. Farmers still have not received the $20 million of drought relief that was promised to them in late spring. Anti-federal sentiment still pulses through the Upper Klamath Basin, and many locals are wary of a solution backed by federal dollars. While Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton recently released up to 75,000 acre-feet of water to help farmers feed their livestock and save their crops' root structure, some farmers still weren't satisfied, calling it a "spit in the bucket." And since no water will reach the wildlife refuges, conservationists and federal biologists are disgruntled. For now, many continue to see this conflict as war.

"It's kind of like Pearl Harbor to us," says Don Russell. "We've been attacked; we're sitting in rubble and smoke. But these people are resilient, and they're not going anywhere."

Rebecca Clarren is HCN's associate editor.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Klamath's federal agencies map different realities (essay)

- Will farmers harvest a legal take?

- Digging for liquid gold


  • Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, Phil Norton, 530/667-2231, [email protected];
  • Bureau of Reclamation, Klamath Basin Area Office, Jeff McCracken, cell phone 916/769-1109;
  • Klamath Water Users Association, Don Russell, 541/891-5898;
  • California Waterfowl Association, Tim Griffiths, 530/842-5760, www.calwaterfowl.org;
  • Yurok Tribe, Troy Fletcher, 707/444-0433, [email protected];
  • or, read Balancing Water: Restoring the Klamath Basin, with photographs by Tupper Ansel Blake and Madeleine Graham Blake and text by William Kittredge, University of California Press, www.ucpress.edu.

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