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Oregon’s Klamath River Basin One Step Closer to Historic Dam Removal

Deal among Native Americans, farmers, ranchers and fishermen marks a triumph for cooperation.

Oregon’s Klamath River Basin has nearly completed an improbable, 15-year journey from community-wide hostility to a hesitant but tangible reconciliation. A decade ago, the river basin was known for being the epicenter of the nation’s most contentious fight over water rights, a place where farmers and ranchers faced off against Native Americans in a long-running, violence-tinged stand-off. Now the region is on the brink of winning approval for a three-part settlement that takes into account the water needs of all its constituencies– farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, commercial fishermen, and the severely damaged Klamath River itself.

Klamath Riverphoto by Joyce cory, on FlickrThe Klamath River

Representatives of all those groups – including environmental organizations professing to protect the river – support the package, whose final component was announced on March 5. That’s particularly stunning since south central Oregon, home to most of the basin’s farmers and ranchers, is Tea Party country, where many people think taking down a working dam is blasphemous. The settlement would set in motion the dismantling of four functioning, though obsolescent, hydroelectric dams that block the passage of salmon through the river. The dams’ demolition would constitute the world’s biggest dam removal project.

The settlement’s last remaining hurdle is formidable. The deal must get legislative approval – and new authorizations of roughly $250 million for river restoration and economic development – from a divided Congress. If that happens, the Klamath, instead of symbolizing enmity, could end up standing for the triumph of inclusiveness and cooperation, and the recognition that a river’s health can be something to unite around.

In the meantime, the river is a mess. Thanks to mining, logging, irrigation, and above all, the dams, some salmon species have disappeared, and all others are a fraction of their pre-European numbers. Each summer algae blooms turn water in the four reservoirs a fluorescent green, so toxic that human contact is forbidden, sometimes from the dams all the way downstream 190 miles to the river’s mouth.

The March 5 agreement reels in the last holdouts to a basin-wide pact, 400 or so upper basin ranchers whose 100,000 cattle feed largely on pasture irrigated by Klamath tributaries. The cattle damage the Klamath’s tributaries in numerous ways, from trampling the river banks where water-cooling, erosion-dampening vegetation would otherwise grow to promoting chemical-laden agricultural runoff that undermines water quality. The ranchers resisted any sort of comprehensive agreement to promote the river’s health until completion of a 37-year-long water rights adjudication process was announced a year ago. They clung to the faint hope that their claims would be recognized. Instead, the adjudication panel awarded the river’s senior rights to the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, a three-tribe confederation in the upper basin. Just two months later, concerned by the impact of a long-running drought on Klamath fish, the tribes exercised their newly-enforceable rights. For the first time since ranchers began settling the basin in the late nineteenth century, their water was cut off. For years the tribes had urged the ranchers to negotiate; by resisting until the adjudication, the ranchers lost most of their leverage. Ranchers who’d denounced the Klamath agreements as evidence of encroaching government regulation or United Nations world domination suddenly realized that their livelihoods depended on making a deal.

Until the adjudication, Ron Wyden, a three-term US Senator from Oregon whose influence ballooned last month when he became Finance Committee chair, had cagily avoided committing himself on the Klamath agreements. Now he saw a chance to get congressional approval for a deal. At his instigation, principals representing all the basin’s constituencies testified at a Senate hearing; then, riding the hearing’s momentum, Wyden gathered many of the speakers into a task force intended to make the settlement more palatable to Congress. Most importantly, the task force was charged with bringing the ranchers into the pact. Ensuing negotiations among the tribes, ranchers, and federal and Oregon government officials lasted eight months. As they wound on, the drought intensified, and the ranchers struggled to run their ranches while negotiating whether the ranches had a future.

The March 5 agreement requires the ranchers to cut irrigation from the Klamath tributaries by 30,000 acre-feet a year – entailing the retirement of 20 to 30 percent of the ranchers’ land. To make that happen, ranchers were offered market rates to retire their water rights, until as much as 18,000 acres are retired. Any more than that, the negotiators decided, and the ranch economy might collapse. Ranchers can also choose to cut water consumption by switching crops (chiefly from alfalfa to native grasses), sharing water rights with other irrigators, limiting irrigation to specified months, or relying entirely on precipitation. The additional water will flow through tributaries into Upper Klamath Lake and down the river’s main stem, increasing flows and improving fish habitat throughout the system. In return for these concessions, remaining ranchers would enjoy the security of knowing that under most conditions, they’d receive enough water to continue operations.

As I reported several years ago for Earth Island Journal, the deal is only the latest against-the-odds agreement to jumble Klamath allegiances. Fifteen years ago, the basin was split into two camps. On one side were farmers and their rancher allies, all located in the Upper Klamath high desert, who relied on the dams’ hydropower to pump river water onto their lands. The farmers worked fields brought into existence by a federal reclamation project starting in 1905 that turned Klamath swamps into cropland; about a third were descendants of World War I and II veterans who won national drawings to settle the land, then discovered the enormous challenges of farming there.

Opposing the farmers were Pacific Coast commercial fishermen, dwindling in number as catches plummeted, and the basin’s four Native American tribes, whose cultures and diets revolve around salmon. Both fishermen and Indians seethed at the destruction of the Klamath’s salmon stock caused by the dams and irrigation. When a drought in 2001 forced the US Interior Department to cut off water to farmers mid-season in accord with the Endangered Species Act, the farmers were livid. Twenty thousand farmers and their supporters staged a symbolic bucket brigade to bring water to their fields in defiance of the government. After Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the Interior Department to provide water for the farmers the following year, regardless of river conditions, it was the Indians’ turn to suffer. With too little water in the river to support its salmon population, tens of thousands of salmon washed up on the Klamath’s shores in September 2002. It was the biggest adult salmon die-off in the history of the American West. In part because the Klamath’s salmon stock was so depleted, four years later the federal government placed 700 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline off limits for most of the commercial salmon fishing season. The Klamath was in a “rotating crisis.”

The two sides sued each other, publicly denounced each other, and paid lobbyists to enact favorable legislation. But neither side could gain an advantage. Troy Fletcher, a leader of the coastal Yurok tribe, told me: “Everyone of us would have rolled the others if we could have.” Now, the impasse looks like a lucky break. Although Fletcher was notorious for his angry denunciations of the farmers, it was he who suggested in 2005 that both sides stop public criticism of each other. Surprisingly, the farmers agreed. Then they began talking. Representatives of farmers, commercial fishermen, environmental groups and the five tribes put in 80-hour weeks attending hundreds of day-long meetings, often after traveling five or six hours to reach them. It took a year or two to develop trust. The farmers found out about the salmon die-off’s disastrous impact on the tribes, and tribespeople discovered that the farmers considered themselves river stewards, too.

The negotiations might not have mattered except for another piece of good fortune. As the tribes saw it, any serious effort to rehabilitate the river had to include the removal of its four hydroelectric dams, and those dams came up for re-licensing in 2006. In January 2007, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that the dams would have to build fish ladders to get renewed – and fish ladder installation would cost as much as $150 million more than demolition. Until then, PacifiCorp, the utility that owns the dams (and is itself owned by a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s holding company), had shown no interest in dam removal, even after Klamath tribespeople marshaled scientific data showing the dams’ negative impacts and staged protests at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting in Omaha. FERC’s decision gave PacifiCorp a reason to reconsider.

Klamath tribes dam removal demophoto by Patrick McCully, on FlickrTribes calling for the removal of Klamath River dams in 2006.

Two agreements, finalized in 2010, resulted. The landmark Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement laid out a plan for the river’s recovery that was signed by farmers, three of the four tribes, the commercial fishermen’s group, seven state and federal agencies, and nine environmental groups. The farmers would give up some of their irrigated water in return for guarantees of smaller diversions; the river would be rehabilitated; salmon would be reintroduced in the river’s upper reaches; and the dams would come down. PacifiCorp signed a companion pact that laid down terms for the dams’ demolition. The dams wouldn’t be dismantled until 2020, giving PacifiCorp a decade to assess a 2 percent surcharge on its electricity users to cover removal costs.

The agreements split the farmers among themselves, and proponents of dam removal narrowly prevailed. The deal also estranged the farmers from the ranchers, their allies in the 2002 protests and the most notable non-signatories in 2010. Greg Addington, head of the farmers’ association, received a torrent of criticism from some of his members for his conciliatory approach to the tribes. “My friends are my enemies,” he said then, “and my enemies are my friends.”

At first congressional passage seemed assured, then momentum faded. With the rise of the Tea Party came increased emphasis in the House of Representatives on fiscal austerity, dooming the pact because of the cost of river restoration – $800 million. The adjudication, the water shut-off, and Wyden’s involvement gave the agreements new life, and the task force established that Congress had already authorized ongoing programs that accounted for $550 million of the needed funds. This time Congress will be asked for only $250 million.

Even without a congressional endorsement, the new agreement has set off another ripple of social upheaval in the basin. Now the ranchers are split, just as the farmers were. Many ranchers who detest the idea of dam removal find themselves reluctantly supporting an agreement to destroy four dams. And if Congress approves the agreement, rancher irrigators will be compelled to work with their former adversaries, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, to devise a riparian restoration plan for Upper Klamath tributaries.

Klamath County’s three commissioners, all Republicans, were ousted in recent years at least partly because they didn’t oppose the agreements vigorously enough. Now their replacements, all identified with the Tea Party, have been caught in the latest shift. On the one hand, Commissioner Tom Mallams, who took office 14 months ago, calls the settlement a “lose-lose” deal and “legal blackmail.” On the other hand, he said, he won’t tell ranchers whether to support it – too many of them already do. The area’s Representative, Greg Walden, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was a co-convener of Wyden’s task force but hasn’t taken a position on the agreements. With approval likely in the Senate but uncertain in the House, his support is considered vital.

The Klamath settlement would be hard to duplicate in other river basins. The absence of a large city or heavyweight industrial or corporate presence in the basin, a consequence of the river’s challenging topography, has left negotiating room for ordinary citizens who care deeply about its water and soil. “A river basin being managed by the people who live there, from the headwaters to the ocean, is not something that happens everywhere,” says Becky Hyde, a pioneering pro-reconciliation rancher who a decade ago turned over trusteeship of her land to the Klamath Tribes. “I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing for the children and grandchildren of the basin.”

Jacques Leslie
Jacques Leslie writes narrative nonfiction about global environmental issues. His book on dams, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for its “elegant, beautiful prose.” His latest work is an ebook, A Deluge of Consequences, that portrays a heroic high-altitude project in Bhutan to counter the effects of climate change.

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