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The Klamath River Water Crisis And Its Lessons On Climate Change

Jim Shanks, left, and other ranchers from the Klamath River Basin collect hay. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)
Jim Shanks, left, and other ranchers from the Klamath River Basin collect hay. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Listen: How Drought Along The Klamath River Impacts Migratory Birds.

The Klamath River stretches 250 miles from southern Oregon to California. Along the entire length of that river, people are hurting.

From farmers:

“You’ve been given a promise by the United States government to provide you water,” Scott Seus, a third-generation farmer, says. “When they take that water off of that land, you have something that’s worth nothing. A piece of barren ground doesn’t mean a thing.”

To the Klamath Tribes, who’ve relied on the river for hundreds of years.

“The tribes has to protect the few remaining adult fish that are left, and it puts everybody in a very difficult position,” Dr. Alex Gonyaw says.

Almost every natural thing is suffering.

“This is a clear signal that the arteries of the west, our wetland ecosystems, are failing,” John Alexander says.

Today, On Point: Drought, vanishing ways of life and lessons we must all learn from the Klamath River basin.


Alex Schwartz, reporter for the Herald and News. (@alexpshorts)

Dr. Alex Gonyaw, senior fish biologist for the Klamath Tribes.

Scott Seus, third-generation farmer and owner of Seus Family Farms.

Barry McCovey Jr., senior fisheries biologist with the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program and a Yurok Tribal member.

Also Featured

John Alexander, Klamath Bird Observatory co-founder and executive director.

Interview Highlights

A description of the Klamath River basin

Alex Schwartz: “People sort of call it an upside down river basin. Sort of in the term that you have a stretch just below the headwaters streams that kind of meanders over flat land. It’s pretty shallow, slow and warm, and then it gets progressively wilder as the river reaches the coast. So in other basins, you’d sort of expect water quality impacts to occur near the bottom of the watershed, not the top. So it’s sort of flipped around up here. And that has some pretty serious implications for water quality in the basin, and just ecosystem health in general.

“But you have the upper basin, which is mostly high desert, and almost all the precipitation here falls as snow in the winter. The lower basin is rugged mountains and even temperate rainforest at some point, basically big foot country. And the last few miles of the river even run through the redwoods. So there’s many species found here that exist nowhere else on Earth. And it’s some of the most remote country in the lower 48.”

On water conditions in the Klamath basin

Alex Schwartz: “In the upper basin, we have a lot of issues with nutrient loading. So mostly phosphorus. And that contributes to algae outbreaks in Upper Klamath Lake, which seriously degrade the water quality of the lake. That same water eventually enters the Klamath River. There’s also some reservoirs on the Klamath River that are like concentrated versions of Upper Klamath Lake that have even worse algae outbreaks, and really warm up the water. And so that has consequences for the fish downstream. And the common thing here this year is that there’s just less water all around. And so when you have lower water levels and lower flows, you have warmer water, and more concentrations of those nutrients and all that algae.”

What does all that water make possible there?

Alex Schwartz: “Numerous indigenous tribes have called the basin home since time immemorial. And the thing pretty much they all have in common is fishing. So salmon were this huge life force, transporting nutrients throughout the basin. But some tribes fish more local species. … But currently the federally recognized tribes include the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, which is actually a confederation of three ethnic groups in the Upper Basin. The Karuk Tribe in the middle of the basin, and the Hoopa Valley and the Yurok Tribes in the lower reaches of the river.

“Tribal members also traditionally hunt birds and game and gather plants, which also depend on water. Then you also have farmers throughout the basin. But about half the farmland lies in the Klamath Irrigation Project, which is a federal project that was established in 1907, which … traditionally took at least 300,000 acre feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake in order to water crops like alfalfa, potatoes, onions, mint. And it was pretty well known for its high quality of crops. But in recent years, drought has really damaged that.”

Who’s in charge of water management along the river?

Alex Schwartz: “The Federal Bureau of Reclamation. There’s this sort of half mile stretch right at the bottom of Upper Klamath Lake, where there’s a main canal that diverts water to the Klamath project. And then there’s also a dam right there that regulates the level of the lake and releases water into the Klamath River. So that spot is probably the most contentious point in the entire basin. Every year, reclamation has to adhere to requirements in biological opinions issued by other federal agencies that are trying to protect endangered species in the basin. And in years like this, where there’s so little water, even those species are fighting with each other for the water.”

On how decisions to manage the fish have downstream impacts on the Klamath

Dr. Alex Gonyaw: “We’re in a very difficult position. We have an environment that no longer produces the amount of water that it did in the early 1900s. The project was developed in the early 1900s, yet we have more demands on the system. So when the project was first developed, there was nothing such as the ESA. And there was very little concern for the rights and the values of indigenous peoples. So we have a system where the agricultural community is demanding water that isn’t there. And that has been allocated to different social values.

“Meaning protecting endangered species, and also fulfilling the inherent sovereignty of indigenous peoples. We also have layered on that climate change, and now drought conditions. So everybody is stuck in a very difficult position. We really have no control over how much water nature produces. However, we do have control over how it is distributed amongst all the various users. And that’s really the crux of the problem here.”

Is there a way to balance the needs of the farmers, the fish, the native tribes, everybody who relies on the lakes and rivers in the basin?

Scott Seus: “I do think that it was the KBRA [The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement]. I think it is the KBRA. The reason why things weren’t enacted in 2015 and that KBRA died was largely the support for KBRA waned because of dam removal. It was such a hot topic locally, politically from here all the way to D.C.

“It was just kind of nails on the chalkboard for some people. It was a spear in the side for others. And the idea of dam removal is utopia for the tribes that believe that a free flowing river is ultimately what’s needed. And as an irrigator, I didn’t have a dog in that fight. The dams that are below us don’t control my irrigation water. I believe that the property owners along the river, that the four dams that are in question, that have a lake, that has property value attached to that for people that have built houses there, that needed to be dealt with.

“And they were trying to do that. But it was such a radical idea. Dam removal is going forward, the anticipation is that dams start coming out in 2023. The part of that agreement that didn’t go through was the component that took care of the national wildlife refuges, which would have had 100,000 acre feet of water guaranteed to them.

“Which this year are only receiving the 10,000 acre feet that’s being brought down … to support 127 suckers that are entrapped there and 100,000 birds that were going through molting that could have had botulism kill. That’s the only surface water coming into this side of the project. And so it’s pretty critical that we get back to that because it dealt with agriculture, it dealt with tribal interests. And what was good then is is still the same approach now in my mind.”

Dr. Alex Gonyaw: “I believe there is. The one thing we can’t control is the needs of these species. The fish need whatever water they require to complete their life cycle, and to continue existing. We have no control over that. So  the first primary concern should be the needs of the species that we are affecting. We’ve also had agriculture on this planet for around 14,000 years.

“And we’ve been able to adapt technologically, behaviorally and through crop science methods to use less water. That means efficient irrigation systems, alternative crops that are more adapted to arid conditions and arid environments. And so we feel that it’s the obligation of people to adapt to the changing conditions of the environment. And not require that three species of fish face extinction to grow crops.”

From The Reading List

Herald and News: “Toxic algae spreads on Upper Klamath Lake” — “Upper Klamath Lake is once again turning toxic for the summer. On July 30, the Oregon Health Authority issued a recreational use advisory for Eagle Ridge County Park and Shoalwater Bay due to a cyanobacteria bloom present on the lake’s western shore.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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