Lost River and shortnose suckers, which are two rare fish species native to Oregon and California, previously graced eastern Oregon rivers in huge numbers, inhabitating Klamath Lake. The Klamath tribes know them as C’waam and Koptu, and have long considered them sacred and essential part of their culture and livelihood. Presently, these fish face dwindling numbers because of toxic algae bloom and drought conditions.
The Klamath Tribes have taken serious action to promote the health of sucker populations. These actions have included exercising senior water rights and preventing agricultural community from irrigating.
Tensions between tribes and agriculturalists have reached extreme heights over the past 10 years. This was highlighted in a 2015 Los Angeles Times article, which called the Klamath area “the nation’s most contentious river basin.”
After years of heated debate and competing interests, the differing parties of the basin crossed partisan lines and drafted a settlement, agreeing on what is referred to as “The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.” The Los Angeles Times referred to it as an “equitable, scientifically grounded document generated by local citizens.” It is a grassroots product of countless hours of conflict resolution between agriculturists, tribal members and environmentalists alike. Local leaders such as, Jeff Mitchell, the head of tribal council and farmers such as Greg Addington, the head of the Upper Klamath Basin farmers association, showed a level of bipartisanship, meeting with each other “across the table” to discuss solutions and general community sustainability.
The KBRA, (later known as the Upper Basin Comprehensive Agreement) was a hard-won document of sustainability and hope in a poor and divisive community. Not only would farmers and ranchers would use less water, but under the agreement there is “… a robust permanent water retirement piece, as well as a conservation segment.”
Privately-owned and environmentally harmful hydroelectric dams that powered water pumps would be removed and replaced with better, energy-saving technology.
The agreement also includes a drought relief clause. Now farmers and ranchers can sustain themselves with enough water to get through dry years like this one, while still preserving sustainable instream flows for ecological health in times of crisis.
Congressman Greg Walden applauded the agreement, telling The Los Angeles Times, “I’ve always felt the best and longest-lasting solution would come from the various parties in the basin working out a plan that made sense for all concerned.” However, in 2015, when the agreement went to Congress for approval, Walden jeopardized its ability to pass, privileging preservation of dams over the long-term stability of his constituency.
This had unfortunate consequences for relations in the Basin. The tribes exercised their senior water rights in response to the drought, effectively taking away the water and putting the agricultural community in a precarious situation.
Old wounds of divisiveness were reopened on both sides, and years of bipartisan efforts were scrapped. Local leadership has spent the last four years struggling to come up with a new settlement, but these efforts haven’t come to fruition until recently.
Last Thursday, the Klamath Tribes announced the dismissal of the lawsuit they waged against the Bureau of Reclamation. In the Tribe’s formal statement chairman Don Gentry said, “The Klamath Tribes maintain that the bureau has failed and continues to fail to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to prevent extinction of C’waam and Koptu.”
The tribe, however, holds that a new biological opinion released by the bureau affords the quickest path towards preserving the species, in turnt providing for new conversations about settlement in the future.
According to the same article, meanwhile, the Basin has been brought to the national stage when President Trump signed major provisional legislation, telling The Herald and News, “It’s $10 million a year for the next four years as needed, and I think that’s a real important safety net as we work on longer term solutions in the Klamath Basin.” Walden celebrated this action on behalf of the president, but some expressed serious concern.
“We’re putting a Band-Aid on a situation that needs a tourniquet,” one rancher said. “If we were living under the Upper Basin Comprehensive Agreement (settlement that failed in Congress) groundwater pumpers in the Upper Basin would not be in such a dire position. Hopefully, someday we will find ways again to truly support one another’s communities. There are some glimmers of hope.”
While the provisions allow for the persistently impoverished communities to survive through drought years, some hold that it’s unfortunate that a long-term and more comprehensive settlement was not implemented.
Hope lingers amongst solution seeking leaders in the basin. Brad Kirby, President of the Klamath Basin Water Users Association, told The Herald and News, “I really do believe we can still come together and make things work, not just for irrigators, or ranchers and farmers, but for fish and for tribes and for all stakeholders involved.”