Troubled Waters

Farmers and Fish in the Klamath Basin

Hot words dominate the debate among the factions vying for water in the Klamath Basin. But as the different groups wrangle over water, all parties agree that even a year or two of record precipitation would only delay the inevitable. There simply is not enough of the precious liquid in the basin to keep the community afloat.

A high country environment, the Klamath Basin extends from southwestern Oregon into northern California. The people are hardworking, the weather uncertain and the country unforgiving. The land is arid: Even the Yuma Desert receives more annual precipitation. "The region’s water problems are the result of thousands of actions over more than 100 years," says Phil Norton, manager at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges.

The reconfiguration of the Klamath Basin’s ecosystem began in the early 1900s, when Teddy Roosevelt created both a wildlife refuge and a reclamation project with the same signature. "The wildlife refuge matched the President’s conservationist visions, while the reclamation project reflected the Great American Dream to the people heading west," says Norton. "At that time, society’s values demanded that the "worthless" swamps be drained and the fertile land cultivated. More farmland would produce more food to nourish a hungry and expanding nation."

To that end, the government transformed 80 percent of the existing 350,000 acres of wetlands into cropland. A head gate was installed when a "V" was carved into a natural reef at Klamath Lake. Since then, when water has been needed for the crops, the lake quenched the parched farmland. Waters were diverted and exchanged from the lakes and rivers to create an irrigation system. Finally, dams were built to control flow down river.

Fast forward to seven years of record-breaking drought and a reconfiguration of cultural consciousness. Upper Klamath Lake, formed by natural forces and dependent on melting snow pack and precipitation for replenishment, has been one of the most reliable water sources for irrigators during dry times. But, as a result of constant draining, the lake’s suckerfish declined and eventually became an endangered species. However, water continued to flow as needed for irrigation despite the algae blooms and a shrinking habitat.

This past year, a Bureau of Reclamation biological report affirmed that suckerfish need a certain level of water in which to live and reproduce. And, because the lakes held less than that, the Bureau denied the release of water to the irrigation system. For the first time in its century-long history, the project received no water.

"More than 1,200 farmers didn’t get the water they needed," says Jim Carpenter, a Klamath Falls resident and co-chairman of the Hatfield Working Group, a federal advisory coalition. Working Group members include government appointees, refuge staff, small business owners, farmers and Native Americans, with the specific mission of finding solutions for drought relief, stabilizing the economy and beginning ecosystem restoration.

© Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges

Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges

"Farming may be responsible for less than 10 percent of the economy, but raw economic numbers don’t tell the whole story," says Carpenter. "Farming generates between $100 and $200 million in a good year. And agriculture is a way of life in the region, with small family operations powering these dollars as opposed to mega-corporations," he adds.

Some farmers rely on alternative water sources, such as wells, other streams or rivers. But these are temporary solutions because the dry land demands intensive irrigation to produce healthy crops even in wet times. Last summer, farmers got so frustrated that they broke into an irrigation station with chain saws and illegally diverted water to their fields.

Some Klamath Basin groups, like the Hatfield Working Group, the Klamath Watershed Council and Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation, are working on new, sustainable approaches to keeping the economy afloat. Innovative ideas include construction of new geothermal power facilities, adoption of advanced water conservation technology coupled with farmer education, and even such low-tech concepts as covering irrigation ditches to reduce evaporation.

"Refuges remain toward the bottom of the Klamath Basin "food-water chain," both physically and priority-wise," says Norton. "What little water reaches the refuges in this stressed environment is oxygen-starved and often highly contaminated." The wildlife refuges are winter homes to more than 1,000 bald eagles as well as the migrating waterfowl that provide the eagle’s sustenance. These wild lands were about to go dry this past August when, at the last minute, the Bureau of Reclamation released some water to the refuge. "Counting donations and some other sources, the refuges received about one half the water they usually do," says Norton.

In a year destined to be disastrous for the wildlife, Norton is relieved. Still, there are continuing repercussions resulting from over-taxing the area’s water resources. "Very little water reaches the lowest dams," says Glen Spain, the Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). Other rivers that could augment the shortage have also been heavily tapped upstream because of the drought. "This year, the trickle is one sixth of the usual flow, it is laced with pesticides, and it often registers a tepid 68 degrees," adds Spain.

The region’s coho salmon total one percent of their original number and are also an endangered species. "Salmon require cooler temperatures and more water in order to spawn," says Spain. "The ocean area at the base of the river is closed to commercial fishing, and fishing villages have become ghost towns. More than 4,000 jobs and $80 million have been lost by the industry," he estimates.

Although some of the facts and figures change depending on the perspective of the people being quoted, all interested parties agree that changes must be made to ensure both a strong economy and a healthy ecosystem. But there are basic disagreements, creating quite a bit of tension, about how to go forward. Some people feel the government needs to supply strong leadership, while others place more confidence in cooperative, grassroots movements.

In the worst possible outcome, the labyrinthine tactics, Byzantine politics and convoluted logic will delay action. The fish and bald eagles will become extinct. Farmers will go bankrupt. The watershed will become irreparably tainted. At best, an innovative solution will forge a template for other ecosystem management and restoration projects around the world.