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Know the West

We are water

With drought being the new normal, how are we to live?


The other day, I went for a walk in the forest as a light rain fell and the sun intermittently shone down through the trees. Everything was gloriously moist and plant life was abundant. A creek tumbled in and out of view, churning with aquamarine swirls and pearly froth. The precipitation wasn’t heavy enough to soak through my light jacket, but it was enough to sustain the trillium blooms and coax the rhododendrons closer to blossoming. In the Mount Hood Wilderness, there seemed to be enough water to go around, though much of Oregon was already experiencing extreme drought.

Carina Lizárraga on Memorial Day with her parents and siblings at Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown. The park is located on the former site of the Southern Pacific Transportation Company’s River Station.

A few days earlier, I had driven to Portland from California’s Central Coast, where the lush greens of spring had already faded to a tawny brown, the oak trees and their shadows drawing a stark contrast. My route bisected Shasta Reservoir, the largest human-made lake in the state. Shasta Dam is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, which builds and maintains dams and canals for water storage, delivery and power generation. As of mid-May, Shasta Lake was at 54% of average capacity, and predictions suggested that it might fall to its lowest level in 40 years ... perhaps even lower.

I crossed the Klamath River, where 70% of juvenile salmon surveyed over a recent two-week period were found dead. The Klamath is managed for the benefit of many: salmon, agricultural users, commercial fishermen and the Klamath, Karuk, Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes. These constituencies are often described as competing interests, though the salmon certainly don’t see it that way; the salmon are just trying to stay alive. And then there are the interests of the river itself, upon which — or I suppose I should say whom — the Yurok Tribe bestowed the rights of personhood in 2019.

The truth is, all these interests have legitimate reasons to want to make use of the Klamath. But when water is in short supply, everybody suffers. How much water, for how much agriculture, versus how much water for salmon? How much for sustaining other fish species of cultural importance to the Indigenous people who have stewarded this river for thousands of years? The calculus grows more impossible with each passing drought.

Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief

There is simply not enough water to go around in the West this year. There will be even less in the years to come. Future droughts may not end at all, merely fluctuate between classifications, from moderate to exceptional. And exceptional may someday become normal. Without water, we are nobody, we are sad sacks of skin-covered bones. We cannot base our lifestyle or our economies on using more water than is available. We’ll need to learn to treat water like the precious element that it is. As the water protectors remind us over and over through their acts of resistance: Water is life.

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