Klamath Crisis

Veterans returning from both WWI and WWII found opportunity in the Klamath River watershed in southern Oregon and northern California. However, the federal government overall has an unfortunate history of poor leadership in the Klamath Basin. And if Congress doesn't act by December 31, history could repeat itself - affecting both our natural heritage and the hard work of generations of American veterans and families.

In 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation began the Klamath Project, building a series of dams, canals and water storage that would redirect rivers and transform the marshy and open rangeland into viable farmland in the Klamath Basin. This aggressive dam-building initiative forever affected the region's fish, wildlife and natural ecosystems, and its politics.

According to historical reports, "After World War I, Klamath Project plots were given to veterans who applied for them. The early homesteaders on Klamath Project lands had no electricity, running water, or telephones... [They found] the Reclamation Service unresponsive to their needs and local officials unable to help them."

In the 1940s, the government interred tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans behind barbwire fences at the Tule Lake Internment - Segregation Center and required forced labor of the Basin's reclaimed farmland.

Nearly 100 homesteads were again awarded to veterans in the late 1940s via a nationally-broadcast pickle-jar lottery. The Tule Lake barracks, which had housed Japanese-American families in harsh conditions, were chopped up and given to the homesteaders. Perhaps unwisely, winning veterans were promised by the Bureau of Reclamation unlimited irrigation water, and the homesteaders and their families quickly got to work building a community and growing potatoes, horseradish and other crops.

In 1954, the federal government again caused trouble in the Klamath Basin. Congress dissolved the local Klamath Reservation and ended federal recognition of three affiliated tribes. Tribal lands and health and education services were lost, causing severe poverty and other challenges. Noteworthy, the tribes retained rights to water and hunting and fishing.

Perhaps it was inevitable that these multiple users would come into conflict. Drought and the courts forced the Bureau of Reclamation in 2001 to limit water supplies to farmers in order to protect endangered fish in the Basin, which were critical to local tribes and a healthy environment. Perhaps understandably, farmers were furious with the federal government: "I am a 1949 homesteader," Air Force veteran Woody Chambers wrote. "We have had some minor drought years but never so devastating as this year when our irrigation water was shut off completely."

The government relented and turned the water back on, but in so doing, caused the death of tens of thousands of salmon in the next year due to warm river temperatures and low flows in rivers. This ecological disaster affected tribes and the recreational and commercial fishing industries.

The crisis served to bring the region's diverse water users to the negotiating table. Over several years, more than 40 different stakeholders helped draft a series of three Klamath Agreements governing water use in southern Oregon and northern California, including tribes, irrigators, veterans, farmers and ranchers, sportsmen, and the power company that owns the dams, PacifiCorp. The States of Oregon and California, several federal agencies and local governments in the region also signed on.

The Agreements affirm water rights of key stakeholders, chart a path for restoring the river, and call for removal of four aging dams blocking migrating salmon. In April 2014, at signing of the third Agreement, Secretary Sally Jewell said, "With the three Klamath agreements in place, we have the tools needed to restore the basin, advance the recovery of its fisheries, uphold trust responsibilities to the Tribes, and sustain our ranching heritage from the headwaters of the Klamath to the ocean."

Unfortunately, Congress has yet to act over the last one-and-a-half years to codify the Agreements - and one of those cornerstone agreements expires in just a few weeks. Senate bill (SB 133), sponsored by U.S. Senator Wyden, is stalled until a companion House bill is introduced. For that, all eyes are on local U.S. Congressman Greg Walden, who has said publicly that the Agreements are a priority for him, but has not yet introduced a bill.

As respected water writer John Fleck has said: "The Klamath once was a symbol of all that is wrong with water management in the western United States (a battleground, lesson one) that had come to symbolize all that could be right (a historic collaborative agreement to overcome the fighting, lesson two). Now there is a risk that we may be headed back to the first."

Without Congressional leadership, the Klamath Basin disasters are likely to repeat themselves.