The Klamath Debacle

Farmer Rob Crawford fixes the visitor across the café table with his steady blue gaze and says, “If there aren’t drastic changes this year, there won’t be a next year.” Crawford and his brother John raise wheat, potatoes, onions, barley, and mint on more than a thousand acres of prime soil in the former bed of Tule Lake just south of the Oregon-California border.

But federal agencies have cut off the flow of irrigation water to his farm and 1,400 others to provide for the needs of three imperiled fish species in this drought year. In the arid upper Klamath basin, where a normal year brings three inches of rain during the growing season, that means finding other water supplies, or giving up on farming for the year.

The federal ruling raises the stakes in a controversy that has been brewing for more than a decade. It highlights the difficulty of crafting a fair and effective plan to bring species back from the edge of extinction under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, and stands as a reminder that nature’s gifts vary from year to year in ways that are bound to clash with an economic system that demands a predictable annual return.

The federal water cutoff – prompted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service – aims to protect endangered fish known as suckers by keeping Upper Klamath Lake relatively high through the summer, and to provide enough water for Klamath River coho salmon downstream.

In the aftermath of the water ruling, thousands of affected farmers and their neighbors rallied in protest, and a few took the law into their own hands, repeatedly opening the headgates from Upper Klamath Lake into the irrigation canals, demonstrating the depth of feeling about the federal decision.

The affected farmers have the bad luck to be clients of the federal government, which must take closer account of endangered species than other agencies. Upstream, owners of an equal 200,000 acres of farmland are drawing their full water allocation from private and local irrigation projects, worsening conditions for the lake’s natural inhabitants just as if water were flowing out of the lake onto downstream farmers’ fields.

Farmers fume that there are ample populations of suckers. They point out that some of the worst fish kills have occurred in years when the lake has been high, and that the suckers survived recent droughts in 1992 and 1994 without significant die-offs, even though the lake was drawn down to low levels.

Biological research reveals a more complicated picture, driven by an interaction of wind speed, lake depth, and nutrient levels. “Nothing can be done in Upper Klamath Lake to eliminate the possibility of fish kills,” says Larry Dunsmoor, fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes. “All you can do is manage to minimize the size of the algae blooms and the chance of fish kills.”

These phenomena are the product of an ecosystem that no longer functions as it once did. Early Euro-American settlers diked and dried up the wetlands around Upper Klamath Lake and its tributary rivers. Starting in the 1920s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation drained most of Tule and Lower Klamath lakes for agriculture and built an irrigation canal to send Upper Klamath Lake water to farms in the neighboring Tule Lake basin.

In the 1990s, initial efforts to protect the suckers focused on restoring their habitat. Tens of thousands of acres of former wetlands were purchased from willing farmers and flooded with water again. Not only do these marshes nurture sucker larvae, they absorb phosphorous that would otherwise enter the lake from farm runoff and aggravate the algae blooms that endanger adult suckers. Other projects, undertaken partly at landowner expense, have fenced cows out of creeks where they were trampling streamside vegetation, screened intakes to keep fish from being sucked into irrigation ditches, and provided off-creek watering troughs so that cattle wouldn’t spend as much time in streambeds.

Ironically, the water cut-off has jeopardized further efforts like these. “The deal was, ‘you can avoid the regulatory hammer by being pro-active,’ ” says rancher Mike Connelly, chairman of the Klamath Watershed Council. “How do I go to my neighbors now and tell them they should do this?” The irrigation ruling has weakened Connelly’s hand with other farmers, who were already skeptical of projects that idle agricultural land. That resistance runs so deep that a watershed group on an Upper Klamath Lake tributary blocked a plan last year to restore two thousand acres of wetland habitat, even though the landowners were willing to sell. “That project would have decreased community income, so there’d be fewer people fighting for water rights,” says Chad Rabe, a veterinarian from that area who is active in local watershed groups.

When people feel their homes and way of life are threatened, it becomes harder for them to consider the basin as a whole and determine whether it can satisfy all of the claims on it. Klamath water has been promised to a long string of users: indigenous fishermen seeking suckers in the upper basin and salmon below, farmers, and two federal wildlife refuges covering parts of Tule and Lower Klamath lakes. (Those refuges are going without water this year, because their supply depends on the excess water applied to farmers’ fields that drains into the lakes.)

During drought years such as this one, the basin doesn’t have enough water to go around. Although it is natural for rainfall to vary from year to year, irrigation districts and the federal Bureau of Reclamation have historically faced pressure to maintain full deliveries to farmers so that they can maintain livestock herds and meet economic commitments such as loan payments and produce contracts. But once the amount of promised water exceeds what the basin can provide in a dry year, the economic system is no longer compatible with the ecosystem.

Conventional economies fail to account for the variability of nature, and inevitably lead to bitter conflicts like the one afoot this summer. Indigenous economies worked differently. “The economy of agriculture is to utilize the water to grow the crop to sell for money to be able to survive,” says Klamath tribal chairman Allen Foreman. “They spend that money at the grocery store. Well, the region here is our grocery store. Our economy is based on using directly what the system produces. When that product is gone, our economy goes down the tubes.”

These days, the tribal economy leans harder on casino gaming than wild game, but the Klamath tribes have relied on the fish for millennia as a staple of their diet and have been the suckers’ strongest advocates. The tribes were influential in listing the fish as endangered in 1989. The water ruling represents a victory for the 3300-member tribe, which saw its reservation whittled away from 2.2 million acres to 880,000 acres by the middle of the 20th century. In 1954, an act of Congress terminated the tribe’s sovereign status and put their reservation land into the national forest system. The tribe regained recognition in 1986, and is fighting to reclaim its reservation.

“We’ve been hearing from agricultural interests how the government betrayed them, and is taking away their rights and their land,” says Foreman. “We’re not unfamiliar with what they’re saying; this is the same song we’ve sung for years.”

This sense of betrayal permeates the Klamath basin these days, as each group presses for the government to honor its promises to them at the expense of others. While the regulatory arena might offer a legally defensible solution, however, it is unlikely to craft a fair or sensible one. Federal biologist Ron Larson admits that the Endangered Species Act is a poor way to resolve these disputes. “The Act should be a last resort, an emergency ward for biodiversity,” he says. “Just like in health care, you want to do the preventive work up front.”

While cropland lies fallow, the region is reaping a bumper harvest of irony. Some farmers go without, and others flood their cropland to raise alfalfa and potatoes, two water-intensive crops in an arid land that would rather grow sagebrush. The western water doctrine of “first in time, first in right” is being stood on its head, with junior irrigators watering full bore while the senior irrigators in the federal project watch their fields go dry.

This year’s wild juvenile salmon face an uncertain future because of the drought, but returns of adult coho salmon to hatcheries in Oregon and Washington are expected to overwhelm the need for broodstock. As a result, more than a hundred thousand salmon fillets will likely be made available to food banks — some of them in the hard-hit Klamath basin.

The supreme irony may yet strike in August, if thousands of suckers die in Upper Klamath Lake regardless of the federal decision to keep the lake high — which could easily happen if the winds die down for several days during the die-off of the algae bloom.

In the face of these ironies, the best hope lies in proposals to buy out willing farmers and retire some land from production, or at least cut the farms’ water needs, to bring their demands into balance with the basin’s reliable water supply. Conservation groups have options on about 30,000 acres of farmland at $3,000 to $4,000 per acre. And across the road from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Klamath Falls, research agronomist Don Clark of Oregon State University Extension is experimenting with flax seed, a less thirsty crop. Other grains also require less water than potatoes or alfalfa, but they wouldn’t return a profit in today’s commodity markets.

Unlike global markets, ecosystems are generous – albeit on their own terms. The volcanic soil in the Klamath basin is richly productive, and the lakes and wetlands harbor hundreds of species of migrating wildlife. But even nature’s magnanimity has its limits; and water, Klamath’s limiting factor, is more abundant in some years than others. Conflict in the Klamath – and much controversy elsewhere – stems from attempts to allocate more than the natural systems dependably offer. Reducing our expectations, whether denominated in irrigation water, crop yield, or salmon catch, is the only sure way to restore balance between people and the rest of the natural world.

Seth Zuckerman writes on issues of ecology and economy from his home in northwestern California. His work appears frequently on the on-line news service, which also supported the preparation of this article, and he is the co-author of Salmon Nation.