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
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.