- As the water rushes out the headgates of the Klamath Lake dam, the
Klamath and Yurok tribes look on with trepidation. The hot, dry summer
of 2001 already had witnessed the spectacle of enraged local farmers
breaking open irrigation channels, pitting their interests against the
fate of a short-nosed suckerfish and the Endangered Species Act. It was
just the latest act in the complex, century-old struggle over land,
water and sustainability.
From the Lava Beds at Tule Lake, one can view the broad panorama of the Klamath Basin where the long-ago volcanic explosion of ancient Mount Mazama created a complex ecosystem surrounding what is now known as Crater Lake. Here, 130 years ago, bands of native Modoc guided by native leaders Schonchin and Captain Jack eluded the US Cavalry, hid among the mountains and fought back against a much greater military force. Today, the wind whistles through the region known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold - a vast, unforgiving stretch of jagged lands to the west, a huge marshland to the east.
One hundred years later, the descendants of the Modocs are again on the defensive. This time, it is not the cavalry but the farmers who, a century after the uneasy settlement of a region, are asking for more water than the land and fish may be able to give.
The Treaty of 1864 created a 2.2 million-acre reservation for the Modoc bands that lived in the region. These people later became known as the Klamath. A decade later, the Modoc War erupted and the lynching of Captain Jack sealed the fate of the region.
In 1905, the Bureau of Reclamation’s massive Klamath Project totally replumbed the region. Today, seven dams, 45 pumping stations, 185 miles of canals and 516 miles of irrigation ditches stretch like a watery web over the land. Less than 25 percent of the original wetlands remain. Some 25,000 acres of those wetlands have been leased to farmers while another 200,000 acres have been turned into farmland. Agricultural runoff has altered the chemistry of the lakes and wetlands and waterfowl populations have declined by two-thirds. It is a familiar story in the arid West - water moved from where it was to places where it should not be.
“What we have,” explains Klamath Tribe Water Attorney Bud Ullman, “is an over-commitment of the water resource and general ecosystem degradation. There have been promises of water initially to Indians in the Treaty…, then there were promises to the farmers in a big irrigation project…, then promises for water to other farms. This all adds up to more water than nature gives us to work with.
“This year, we had the mother of all droughts here,” Ullman adds. “It’s not a simple matter of the dunderheaded federal government taking water away from farmers. The situation is too often and incorrectly portrayed as fish-against-farmers. That is both incorrect and a deep disservice to the community.”
The 15,600-square-mile Klamath Basin starts high in the Cascade and Siskiyou Range. The Rogue Valley’s lush pear crops get a big slurp before the water even gets to the Klamath Lake, leaving only a half-million acre-feet of water a year for wildlife refuges and the farmers. (Double that, if you also want to protect the fish in the ecosystem.) All together, at least 900,000 acre-feet of water is needed in the Klamath Basin - more than exists upstream or downstream.
The flow of the Klamath below the dam must be maintained to allow the native fish to migrate. “You can debate how much water fish really need,” says Yurok Tribe Executive Director Troy Fletcher, “but it’s hard to say they don’t need any.”
The Klamath word for suckerfish is c’wam. Asked what the word for salmon is in Klamath, Bud Ullman responds wryly, “gone.” The dams have obliterated the salmon in the upper Klamath River system, once the third most productive salmon run on the West Coast. Today, the coho salmon are listed as “threatened.” The downstream Yurok (whose reservation spans 44 miles on either side of the Klamath River) still rely on the coho for their way of life.
“The river is critical for our culture and survival,” says Fletcher, whose family has fished the lower Klamath for generations. “We depend on the fishery… for ceremonial, subsistence and commercial purposes. We have since the beginning of time.”
The Klamath’s inherent legal rights to the river’s water have been recognized by the 1864 treaty, the 1954 Termination Act, the Restoration Act and a federal court ruling (US vs. Adair). In spite of seeing their reservation whittled from 2.2 million to 880,000 acres and the seizure of their lands (largely for Winema National Forest), the Klamath have survived. Through it all, their claim to the Klamath’s waters remained one of the few constants in the raging tides of federal Indian policy.
“There are people on all sides of the issue,” Bud Ullman continues. “The fish are endangered now, the tribes’ fishery is closed and the tribes are suffering terribly because of the inability of families to put food on the table.” According to Klamath Tribal Vice Chair Joe Hobbs, the Klamath historically harvested more than “50 tons of the suckers a year” and salmon were equally significant.
Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations estimates that 4,000 jobs have been lost with the decline of the Klamath fishery, representing a net loss of $75 million a year.
The Klamath water wars are fanning conflict between the Native community, environmentalists and farmers. In a future with global warming and increasing water scarcity, there are no easy answers. Some conservation groups have proposed buying out willing farmers and retiring land from production to reduce water demand. Other groups hope to purchase and protect about 30,000 acres of farmland at a hefty $3,000 to $4,000 an acre. There are other proposals to farm drought-resistent crops that need less water to grow.
Thus far, Ullman has been somewhat surprised by Washington. “The tribes are pleased at the Bush administration’s willingness to uphold the ESA and to work towards real solutions to the problems in the Klamath Basin,” he says. “They must choose either to help solve this problem or abandon us all to decades of strife over water. So far, they’ve chosen to seek solutions.”
With little rain in sight, let us see what the future and the folks in Washington bring.
Winona LaDuke is co-chair of the Indigenous Women’s Network and the author of All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (South End Press) and Last Standing Woman (Voyager Press). LaDuke and Ralph Nader were the Green Party candidates in the 2000 presidential race.(c) 2001 Winona LaDuke.
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