The effort to save Upper Klamath Lake’s endangered fish before they disappear

Another dry year pushes tribal nations, federal agencies and irrigators to find long-lasting solutions.

C’waam and koptu fish usually arrive in early spring to spawn in the creeks and rivers around Upper Klamath Lake, in southern Oregon. But this year, the fish didn’t turn up as expected. The two dwindling species are found only in this basin, and Klamath Tribes biologists thought that maybe, for the first time, the worst had happened — that they would not show up at all.

But, finally, they appeared. On a morning in May, a c’waam swam into view, its thick, speckled body around two feet long. Faryn Case, a biologist at the Klamath Tribes’ research facility and a Klamath tribal member, stood waiting in the shallows of the lake, ready to collect the c’waam’s eggs, which are the size of BB gun pellets.


Case had lived in the Klamath Basin all her life, but this was the first living adult c’waam she’d seen in the wild. The fish was probably 30 or 40 years old, and it was breathtaking: elegant in a prehistoric way, with its white belly, bony fins and a downturned mouth ideal for filter feeding. Every year since at least 1991, almost all juvenile c’waam have died, because the wetlands that once acted as a nursery are largely gone, and water quality has plummeted due to phosphorous loads from agriculture runoff and cyanobacteria. As a result, the lake population is old and aging. “She looked so tired. I’d be tired, too,” said Case, a Klamath Tribes descendant and enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Her grandfather had been a fish handler in the tribes’ annual C’waam Ceremony, and her father regularly saw the fish for years. But in Case’s lifetime, they’ve always been endangered; she has never tasted one.

Over the past few years, the Klamath Tribes have embarked on a mission to collect c’waam eggs in order to rear them in captivity, something senior fish biologist Alex Gonyaw calls “genetic salvage.” The tribes plan to release a small batch of 3- to 4-year-old fish next spring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also began raising c’waam and koptu in 2018, but the lack of a substantial overlap between the wild and captive-raised populations could make the recovery difficult. The fish’s historic range has been reduced by 75%, and they need more habitat and better water quality before they can survive on their own.

A pair of juvenile c’waam in a fish tank at the Klamath Tribes Fish Hatchery and Research Station.
Paul Wilson/High Country News

C’waam and koptu — also known as Lost River and shortnose suckers — were thriving as recently as 70 years ago, supporting tribal fishing families and Klamath Tribes cultural practices. Since then, however, drought, hotter temperatures, dropping water levels and worsening water quality have all increased, threatening the fish’s survival. Given that agriculture, wildlife refuges and endangered coho salmon all need water, too, the Klamath Basin has long been notorious for infighting and litigation among irrigators, tribal nations and the federal and state governments. But this year’s historic drought and the colossal Bootleg Fire have brought more attention to the need for long-term solutions.

All the conversations around water — who gets it, how much — in the Klamath Basin are inextricable from the colonialism that resulted in drained wetlands, new dams and irrigation canals and displaced the Klamath and Modoc Tribes and the Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians, which today collectively make up the Klamath Tribes. Upholding the rights of the tribes must be as much a part of those conversations as the science behind wildlife management and water allocations, said Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry. “We want justice. … We expect for the treaties to be honored,” Gentry said in Klamath Falls this summer. “We can’t continue doing what we’ve been doing. That way is not sustainable.”

Chairman Don Gentry of the Klamath Tribes.
Paul Wilson/High Country News

ON A BRIGHT MORNING IN JULY, before the midges started swarming, Faryn Case and tribal fishery aquatics technician Jimmy Jackson climbed into a small skiff in Pelican Bay, on the northwest edge of Upper Klamath Lake, where clear springs burble up through the ground. They were conducting the tribes’ first fish-kill survey of the year, a weekly outing to recover any suckers that may have died in order to monitor the status of the fish population. There are an estimated 24,000 c’waam left, and just 3,400 koptu — since 2002, the wild c’waam population has dropped by 65%. The surveys normally begin in August, but this year’s high temperatures forced them to begin a month early.

At an inlet called Ball Bay, Jackson slowed the motor as the propellor churned out green water in the boat’s wake. “That’s crazy,” he said. “It doesn’t usually look like this till August.” Squiggles of neon-green filaments bobbed in the water below. Cyanobacteria and blue-green algae appear annually in Upper Klamath; once the algae bloom and die, their decomposition consumes the lake’s oxygen, suffocating the c’waam, koptu and other organisms. The algae also produce microcystins, neurotoxins and possible carcinogens that can’t be boiled or easily filtered out of the water. Swimming in it can cause rashes, and ingesting it can cause kidney failure in humans, and sicken or kill dogs and other animals.

Off the boat’s port side, back on land, a huge pivot sprinkler cast Upper Klamath Lake water over a farm field. The c’waam and koptu’s critical habitat is both a reservoir and runoff receptacle for the Klamath Project, a Bureau of Reclamation irrigation operation that waters 1,200 farms on 240,000 acres of farmland that was once wetland. This year, the farms received almost no water from the project because of drought. Neither did the two national wildlife refuges in the basin, nor the endangered coho salmon downstream in the Klamath River. Now, even domestic wells are beginning to fail.

Tanikwah Lang and Jimmy Jackson of the Klamath Tribes Fish Hatchery conduct a fish-kill survey on Upper Klamath Lake. Oxygen levels in the lake are low enough that they can be lethal for the endangered c’waam and koptu.
Paul Wilson/High Country News

Proposed solutions range from small-scale changes on private property to landscape-level riparian restoration. One example: The Klamath Tribes are piloting a solar-powered aerator in Upper Klamath Lake to help add oxygen to the water, beat back toxic algae and maintain small pockets of clear water for suckers. Eventually, more aerators could be added throughout the lake. Another example: The nonprofit Ducks Unlimited recently received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create the Klamath Basin Farming and Wetland Collaborative, a program to pay farmers to flood irrigate fields, creating standing water to support migrating waterfowl and revitalize the soil.

The aerator and the flooding address some of the immediate concerns but don’t address the basin’s root problems. That would require a measure of undoing — repairing the fractured relationship between land, water and species. In 2017, for example, the Fish and Wildlife Service, a local landowner, the Klamath Tribes and nine other partners completed a 25-year project to reconnect Sun Creek, a tributary to the Wood River, which empties into Upper Klamath Lake. Sun Creek had been diverted, partially filled in and used as an irrigation canal for 100 years, cutting off a native bull trout population. That kind of restoration, which requires buy-in from the landholders and federal agencies, needs to happen all over the basin.

Large-scale restoration has been on the table before, in the form of the 2010 Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, signed by the Klamath Tribes, Karuk Tribe, Yurok Tribe, governors of Oregon and California, ranchers, nonprofits and the federal government. It contained plans to reintroduce salmon, which have been absent from the upper basin — in violation of the Klamath Tribes’ treaty rights — for over 100 years due to several dams. The agreement would have helped the tribes acquire 92,000 acres of land, started Klamath dam removal, provided water certainty for irrigators, curtailed litigation and led to a drought-year plan.

A solar-powered aerator is currently being tested by the Klamath Tribes in Upper Klamath Lake.
Paul Wilson/High Country News

But finalizing it required congressional approval, and legislators failed to pass it before it expired in 2015. The dam removal, the cost — $800 million over 15 years — and the land return were part of what made it controversial, said Chairman Gentry. Concessions were made on all sides; the Klamath Tribes agreed to give up their water rights to the Klamath River, for example, while irrigators agreed to forgo a portion of their water allocations for ecosystem restoration.

Now, agriculture leaders like the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) are once again calling for a settlement, but the balance of power has shifted since 2010. The state of Oregon now recognizes the Klamath Tribes as holding the most senior water rights in the basin, and the tribes are no longer willing to enter into an agreement that requires them to give up water. The c’waam and koptu, they say, can’t give up any more.

 A FEW SUMMERS AGO, Klamath tribal member and racial justice advocate Joey Gentry was out on her hemp farm in the Klamath Project, trying to fix her MacGyvered irrigation system, when she accidentally stumbled into the cyanobacteria-infested water. “It was terrible,” she said. “My legs were on fire.”

Gentry farms hemp because it requires less water than other crops. This epitomizes her ethos for farming in the basin: Instead of pushing for more water, simply adapt to what’s available. “We’re farming a desert region, and we obliterated ecosystems to do so,” said Gentry, who is from Klamath Falls and began farming in the last few years. “So now how do we protect what’s left? How do we farm with less water?”

“That is how racism reveals itself here, is failure to even say our names.”

That has not necessarily been the prevailing view of agricultural groups like the Klamath Water Users Association or Klamath Irrigation District. This year, in response to the news that irrigators would receive hardly any water from the Klamath Project because of drought and prioritization of sucker species, KWUA President Ben DuVal said that “water users are extremely upset with what the federal government is doing to us, and with good reason. Taking water from project irrigators for ESA species is a failed experiment that has produced no benefit for the species.” But that response ignores the Klamath Tribes entirely, as well as their sovereignty and their efforts to restore culturally critical species.

“That is how racism reveals itself here, is failure to even say our names,” said Joey Gentry;  the tribal chairman is her brother, but she does not speak for the tribe. It has historically shown up in other ways, too: During the last bad drought year, 2001, three white men drove through the town of Chiloquin, shooting 12-gauge shotguns and screaming “sucker lovers” in what the local sheriff called an “act of terrorism.” Tribal members reported being driven off the road, even beaten up.

These days, anti-Indigenous rhetoric peppers Facebook posts in community groups. While some posts focus on the genuine frustrations of the agricultural community, others attack the tribes and the suckers, linking the basin’s problems to wild conspiracy theories regarding government takeover. The tribes don’t put their name or emblem on their vehicles, clothing or projects around the community, out of concern of vandalism or violence. Local leaders have yet to publicly acknowledge the anti-Indigeneity that tribal members experience afresh during each drought year. “Make our fish go away, and then maybe the tribes will go away,” Gentry said. “It is that level of erasure.”

Klamath tribal members kayak in the headwaters of the Wood River in 2019. Sharing an aquifer with Giiwas (Crater Lake), the headwaters of the Wood River are turquoise blue and shockingly cold.
Paul Wilson

THE NORTHEASTERN EDGE of Upper Klamath Lake, at the mouth of the frigid Wood River, gives a glimpse into what hundreds of thousands of acres once looked like. Today, over 3,000 acres of thick stands of cattails, tule reeds and wocus — a hardy lily with lemon-yellow flowers and an edible bulb harvested by tribal members — commingle in the clear, cold water as swallows swoop to snatch bugs out of the air and birds chatter from the cottonwoods. “That is what it should all look like,” said Taylor Tupper, news department manager and former councilmember for the Klamath Tribes.

Between 1940 and 1957, landowners built a 6-foot levee separating the Wood River from the surrounding wetlands. The dried-out wetlands became ranch land, and the Wood River became a shallow, channelized canal. In 1995, the area was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. To restore it, the agency shortened the levee, dug out the fill from the historic riverbed, re-created its meandering bends and floodplain and stabilized its banks with boulders, willows and other vegetation. It’s a small undoing of the damage done to a river and wetland — a world once nearly erased, now made visible again.

This year, the tribes completed a land transaction that doubled their land holdings near the headwaters of the upper Williamson River. There, four miles of river wind through 1,705 acres of riparian meadow, wetlands and timber, within the tribes’ former reservation boundaries. The property is located near historic tribal hunting and fishing camps. The tribes have yet to develop a management plan, but are eager to lead the effort to restore the relationships among the land, water, wetlands and suckers. “It’s still beautiful here, and that’s why there’s a hope for turning the corner,” Chairman Gentry said.

First light on a farm near Barkley Spring, Oregon, along Upper Klamath Lake. Despite the record-setting drought year, this field has remained a lush green.
Paul Wilson

Tribal biologist Faryn Case agrees. For Case, the encounter with the wild adult c’waam earlier this year was a vision of what the fish the tribes are raising will one day become, and motivation to continue the c’waams’ lineage, unbroken. “Our best solutions are to try to restore what we degraded,” Case said. “There’s not a solution where we get more water.”

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email us at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor