Doctor's Orders: Undam the Klamath

  • Rowing on the Upper Klamath Lake, at the top of the system covered by the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement

    David Lorenz Winston
  • A bass fisherman casts a line into the algae-clogged waters of the Iron Gate Reservoir, March 2009, in the Klamath River Basin.

    David McLain/Aurora Photo
  • Merv George of the Karuk Tribe, at a protest in front of PacifiCorp's Salt Lake City offices, holds a photograph of a traditional Karuk fisherman and his sons holding a salmon.

    Trent Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune
  • Ron Reed and fellow Karuk Tribe members make their way across rocks at Ishi Pishi Falls on the Klamath River, using a handmade dip net to fish for fall run Chinook salmon in October 2007.

    David McLain/Aurora Photos
 

In recent years, I witnessed the battle over re-licensing of four dams on the Klamath River, which runs from Oregon's high desert country to the redwood and Doug fir forests of the California coast. This watershed is my home, and it filled me with hope that dam removal could bring salmon to reaches of river that had not seen a spawning salmon in nearly a century.

My relatives and their neighbors were against dam removal. Their arguments had a lot to do with settler pride of place, how we took this wild river and made it useful -- building cheap hydropower, irrigating onions, growing potatoes for Frito-Lay, watering livestock.  My family's arrival in California in 1870 was an oft-told tale that gave us our rightful place in the West. But the land had changed since then. In summer, the river was too warm, its color a neon yellow-green. In some years, stretches of the Shasta and Scott tributaries dried up.

It was at a California Water Board meeting in October 2008 that I got a good look at settler pride in action. At the highway turnoff into Yreka in Siskiyou County, the moon cast long shadows from the statue of a bearded miner panning for gold beside his mule. Inside the meeting room, fluorescent tubes lit the stained walls of the conference room and its restless inhabitants. "Coho, chinook, steelhead, Pacific lamprey and green sturgeon could disappear from the watershed forever," a voice lamented through the microphone. Collapse of First Nations fisheries had brought deepening poverty and with it soaring rates of diabetes among the tribes. For farmers and ranchers, higher water releases from reservoirs for fish brought nightmare images of empty fields and abandoned ranches. There were angry voices on all sides. But the speakers I found most difficult to hear were those with settler backgrounds like my own, proud of their place in the West and sadly ignorant of the plight of the tribes on the river.

Diabetes began ravaging the First People of the Klamath well after the Gold Rush ended. But the 19th century laid the foundation for the fisheries collapse -- and that in turn caused the most important shift in the Native diet. There were, and are, many causes of the collapse: stream-bank degradation from mining and livestock, deforestation and erosion, commercial overfishing, dams blocking river flow and access to spawning habitat, heavy water withdrawals and diversions, pollutants from agricultural runoff, drought and now global climate change.

But there's a larger story behind it all, involving Native displacement from ancestral lands and the breaks in cultural knowledge created when generations were forcibly removed to Indian boarding schools. Most important of all is the loss of salmon. In pre-contact times, the Salmon Nation diet consisted of an estimated 450 pounds of salmon per person per year. Today, it's less than five pounds per person per year.

Ron Reed of the mid-Klamath Karuk Tribe remembers that his family could still fish and feed everyone as recently as the 1960s, when Iron Gate, the last dam, was completed. By the mid-1980s, Karuk families found it difficult to catch enough salmon, lamprey, steelhead, freshwater mussels and sturgeon to sustain themselves. Acorns, game and dozens of other foods were also scarce in the logged-out lands. By the 1990s, Klamath coho were listed as threatened and spring chinook runs were dangerously small. As fisheries declined, Native families increasingly filled their bellies with store-bought and government commodity foods -- cheap starches, fats and sugar. Chronic unemployment, despair and addictions rose in the gap left by the vanishing life in the river.

By the 1870s, when my great-grandmother came to California, the indigenous population on the Klamath had already declined by 75 percent. A century later, diabetes, once virtually unknown in the tribes, stalked the descendants of the survivors.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.