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

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Much as all Westerners, Native and non-Native, might wish this history away, we have to face it together. We live in one watershed. In these times, we are easily disconnected from life rhythms millions of years old. And once disconnected, we can wreak havoc on everything around us. The diabetes epidemic that robs us of vitality, making us crave hollow substitutes for the true sweetness of life, is an indiscriminate killer. On the tribal elder's scored war staff, we need to include the uncounted lives lost to diseases in our disrupted landscape.

In January 2008, the Klamath Settlement Group, which included representatives of tribes, irrigators, ranchers, fishing associations, government agencies and conservation groups, offered a proposal for public review -- a comprehensive plan to restore the watershed. During the years of settlement meetings, people began to create lasting friendships across disparate groups. They sat in motel meeting rooms learning of births of grandchildren, divorces, graduations, river ceremonies, festivals, the deaths of parents and friends. And in their new relationships they found a way to restore the Klamath. As Roger Smith, a biologist with Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife, put it: "It is beyond my wildest dreams."

Still, until recently, the Settlement was missing one important signature -- PacifiCorp, the company that owns the dams. It is a subsidiary of Mid-American Energy Holding Company, itself an affiliate of Berkshire-Hathaway Inc., which is run by one of the world's richest men, Warren Buffett. PacifiCorp removed itself from Settlement talks because it was seeking 50-year renewals on dam licenses that expired in 2006, a key issue in the restoration.

Tribal and environmental activists traveled together to protest at Berkshire-Hathaway public meetings. Merv George Jr. brought his Brush Dance regalia and hitched up a trailer to carry his family's antique redwood canoe to Buffett's headquarters in Omaha, Neb. Few were allowed in to address Buffett. Merv George's wife, Wendy, spoke to an image of Buffett's face on theater-sized conference screens. She sobbed as she asked him to remove the dams. "Sir, I have heard you are kind. The dams are killing the fish and destroying my people's way of life." The enormous Buffett lips asked if she had finished, then explained utility company politics as if to a child. Even Forbes Magazine wondered how he could be so heartless. Surely this monetary Great Oz presiding in the Midwest could do something.

But nothing was done until the dams became too expensive. One of the oldest forms of life on earth held a key. Farmers, ranchers, fishermen and reed gatherers call it an algal bloom, but its real name is cyanobacteria - a photosynthesizing single-cell organism over 3 billion years old. Over the past few decades, cyanobacteria has shown up with increasing frequency in livestock watering holes and irrigation ditches. It forms huge mats in the reservoirs. And along the river, in the summer months of dusty pine scents, the acid-green mats pile up below the willow-covered riverbanks. With its seasonal appearance, hazard signs are planted along the river. Its decay byproducts poison dogs and wildlife that drink the water or swim in it, and injure human skin, liver and brain tissue.

Cyanobacteria thrive in the warm artificial lakes, low-flow waters, and agricultural run-off of the dammed and diverted river. Klamath Riverkeeper, a citizens' group, and tribal ceremony leaders sued PacifiCorp for fostering the toxic blooms -- and won. The process of re-licensing the dams was terminated in 2009. Even if the dams could have been re-engineered for fish passage as required by law, it would not have stopped cyanobacteria. In the end, PacifiCorp joined the Settlement, saying the dams were too expensive to fix. Cyanobacteria was not named in the final PacifiCorp documents but it certainly lurked there, hidden in the torpid, stagnant language of the relicensing paperwork.

On Feb. 19, 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, PacifiCorp, the governors of Oregon and California and the Settlement representatives signed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. It pledges to restore and sustain natural fish species throughout the Klamath Basin, maintain water for the National Wildlife Refuge, establish reliable water and power supplies for agricultural and community use, and develop the sustainability of all Klamath Basin communities. On May 5, the California Public Utilities Commission added its voice, recommending removing the Klamath dams to help restore salmon.

We work toward a time when the Klamath is restored to full health and the tragedies of the disturbed river ecology and its people, including the diabetes epidemic, remain but a cautionary tale of the past. The work of restoration is multi-generational. There is much to be done to bring back the health of these riverlands, their wildlife and people. No doubt there will be political roadblocks ahead. But I think about what Smith said, when he described the Settlement: "It is beyond my wildest dreams." It is time to raise the standards for our dreams.

Diana Hartel heads the Oregon-based arts and environment nonprofit Madrona Arts. She has worked as an epidemiologist for over 30 years.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

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