The Klamath River Basin: A Microcosm of Water in the West
The story of the Klamath River is the story of two basins.
In the upper basin, farming has long been the way of life. Even before passage of the 1902 Reclamation Act, settlers had begun the arduous process of reclaiming vast tracts of wetlands and transforming them into rich farmland.
Downstream, much of the lower basin’s economic fortunes were derived from the salmon harvest. The annual migration of these fish sustained American Indian tribes for centuries and once supported a thriving commercial fishery.
Today, both portions of this remote region located on the California-Oregon border are facing great change as the values of yesterday clash with the values of today. Much of the focus is on the Klamath Project, the second oldest federal reclamation project in the West.
“From the turn of the century up to the early 1990s, the Project served one purpose – to take water out and put it on the land and make the land produce,” said Phil Norton, who manages the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Klamath Basin Refuge Complex. “For society’s values, that was doing something good. Society’s values changed, what was good became bad, when people realized the negative impact to the environment. The rules – endangered species, tribal water rights – changed, and we’re trying to adjust. Farmers feel threatened because things have changed.”
For many farmers, the crisis began during the drought years of 1992 and 1994 when – for the first time in 80 years – Klamath Project irrigators did not receive their full supplies of water from the Project. Despite a series of subsequent wet years, these water users are facing an uncertain future as federal and state officials work to accommodate other demands on the system.
“This is one of the issues that troubles Klamath Project farmers,” said attorney Paul Simmons. Simmons, a partner in the law firm Somach, Simmons and Dunn, represents Klamath Project irrigators. “The Klamath Project is asked to mitigate, with its water, for impacts of other consumptive users, as well as for such things as impacts of mining, forestry, over-fishing and hydropower development.”
In some ways, what is occurring in the Klamath Basin mirrors the struggle facing Nevada’s Newlands Project and California’s Central Valley Project, where attempts to stretch a scarce resource to supply traditional uses while meeting new demands has generated conflict and controversy.
As with these projects, legal and legislative remedies have been the chosen course for some Klamath Basin issues; collaboration and consensus the trend of other programs.
“My perception is that the Klamath is now one of the key hot spots for water in the West,” said Reed Benson, executive director of WaterWatch, an Oregon-based environmental group. “There are few places where all the issues are coming together the way they are in the Klamath [Basin]. Endangered species, tribal rights, state adjudication, re-operation of federal projects are all coming to the Klamath and getting tackled in a way not being addressed other places in the West.”
Not only are the Klamath River’s resources shared by two basins, the Klamath watershed bisects two states, 10 counties, tribal governments, and federal, state and private lands. Each of the competing stakeholder groups involved in the basin has disparate goals and interests. It remains to be seen whether these parties can put aside historic and modern disagreements and unite in support of watershed solutions that encompass issues in both basins.
“I think we’re working toward solutions, but we’re really still at the conflict stage where positions are being taken,” said Karl Wirkus, area manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau). “There are some attempts at collaboration, but it’s hard to get together in a collaborative process when you have that regulations hammer out there.”
Despite the fact that these collaborative efforts have addressed some of the Klamath Basin’s pressing problems, according to Benson, “the question of who gets to use water and how much remains. That’s the hardest issue there is.”
Who has rights to what water is the focus of Oregon’s water rights adjudication process by which pre-1909 water rights claims will be determined. The adjudication began some 25 years ago, but was delayed as lawsuits were filed over a number of issues. The last of those lawsuits was resolved in the mid-90s, clearing the way for the adjudication to proceed.
By its nature, an adjudication is an adversarial process in which water users challenge each other over who has a higher priority for water. In an effort to avoid a lengthy legal procedure, Oregon officials also initiated a parallel process – known as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) – in which water users meet regularly to negotiate a water rights settlement. The goal is for water users to agree how to share the water.
“An adjudication is looking backward at water rights,” said Martha Pagel, former director of the Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD). “The alternative dispute resolution is looking forward to build a better future.”
One promising development stemming from the ADR is an agreement in principle reached between the Klamath Tribes and Klamath Project irrigators. The two parties began meeting three years ago, and announced their milestone last year. While details of the 13-point framework have not been made public, the irrigators are now meeting with the downstream Yurok Tribe to determine what would be needed to reach a settlement.
Originally, the Klamath Project was designed to serve only the irrigators within its boundaries. It was not until the mid-1990s that the federal government determined the priority of the Project’s water as: Endangered Species Act (ESA) requirements; tribal trust requirements; irrigation needs; and wildlife refuges.
The issue of providing more water for fish illustrates the complexity of Klamath Basin issues. Several fish species in the basin are protected under the federal ESA. Upstream in Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake and the Lost River system of Oregon and California are the endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers. Downstream in California below Iron Gate Dam officials are working to restore populations of coho and chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
Biologists believe all of these fish would benefit from more water. Higher water levels would maintain spawning habitat in Upper Klamath Lake for the resident suckers; increased downstream flows would assist anadromous fish species below Iron Gate Dam. Yet if more water is kept in the lake for the suckers, either less water will flow downstream to salmon and steelhead or less can be used for irrigation. Conversely, increased downstream flows for salmon and steelhead means either less lake water for suckers or irrigators.
Downstream fish needs are the subject of a flow study, due for release this fall, and a lawsuit. A coalition of downstream commercial fishing and environmental groups have sued the Bureau to force the release of more water into the Klamath River for salmon and other anadromous fish. The groups say the Bureau’s operation plan for the Klamath Project will not provide enough water for coho salmon, alleging the plan violates the ESA.
In the upper basin, wetlands restoration has been the subject of study in recent years. With development of the Klamath Project, much of the area’s wetlands were drained and converted to farmland. Yet even as dams, reservoirs and canals were constructed, the government moved to protect the bird populations. The first of six national wildlife refuges in the basin was established in 1908.
But the refuges were given land, not water. And farming continued to develop, including on land within the refuge boundaries - thousands of acres of Klamath Project-supplied fields border Tule and Lower Klamath lakes. These refuges serve as a critical resting stop for hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway, but with migratory bird populations at the Klamath refuges one-third of what they were 40 years ago, questions are being raised about refuge water supply and land use.
Endangered fish and water for wildlife refuges are just two of the many issues in the Klamath Basin. Other topics – water quality problems, wetlands restoration, Indian water rights and reliable water supplies – are equally complicated and contentious. Although the disparate stakeholders differ in their viewpoints when it comes to resolving these and other problems, they are seeking common ground through a number of coalitions. Participants say communication between various state and federal agencies and interest groups has improved because of these collaborative efforts.
“I see myself as someone who truly feels the water resource itself must be restored and maintained over any single interest,” said Alice Kilham, chair of the Klamath River Compact Commission. Kilham is viewed as a leader in these efforts to reach agreement. “I’m an optimist. I believe out of difficult change can come a creative solution; that if people with different viewpoints come together to find a solution, a miracle can occur.”
This issue of Western Water profiles the Klamath Basin and its issues. It provides background information on the basin’s geography and history, explores some of the current problems, and discusses some of the ongoing efforts to resolve these issues. More information on the Klamath Basin will be available in an upcoming public television documentary/viewer’s guide produced by the Foundation, and scheduled for release later this year.
We’ve been looking into water problems in the Klamath Basin, a wildly beautiful, remote two-basin region located between the California-Oregon border, for a major public television documentary, Watercolors. The program will explore the challenges in meeting the many water needs of the area and stars actor Larry Hagman, who often visits the Klamath Basin for fishing and, as he says, for “peace and restoration.” Our work in the Klamath Basin has been assisted by the Trust for Public Land, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The entire Klamath Basin is an area of uncommon beauty lined with mountains, dotted with lakes and marked by wetlands, upper basin farms and lower basin forests and great rivers. As Sue McClurg describes in this Western Water, it’s an area facing great change as the values of yesterday clash with the values of today. For a long time the Klamath basin and its people remained relatively isolated. It’s only been in recent years that the way things are done – fishing, forestry, farming and wildlife management – has changed in the basin. Droughts in 1992 and 1994 probably forever changed the way water was used in the Basin.
Today there just isn’t enough water to go around for established uses and the new requirements of nature and law to put more water into the natural ecosystem. As in other areas of the arid West, it seems decisions on water come only after lots of meeting, arguing and sometimes litigating. This is true in the Klamath Basin where there are so many more conflicting water interests.
In some ways, the Klamath dispute reminds me of the fight over the Delta in California about a dozen years ago. At that time, the major California water stakeholders decided to begin a series of meetings together that became known as the “Three-Way Process.” It was the first time that the urban, agricultural and environmental water interests sat down together to look for common ground and solutions. It failed to lead to progress on issues, but it is now seen as the process which lead the way to the 1995 Delta Accord truce and later the creation of CALFED and restoration efforts.
Now in the Klamath Basin, groups have started meeting with varying degrees of progress. They are looking at creating restoration programs and developing plans to make up for reduced water supply. And as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley, local watershed groups are springing up. One bright note is that local communities are working together to shape change. We hope they can succeed.
In the meantime, look for the documentary to air this fall on local public television stations. And another water item to look for is the California Water Map – now appearing at California highway rest stops. Coni Taylor, our new staff secretary, has been leading our efforts to post the map at these places. You can help by letting her know at what stops you see the map and where you don’t see it.
In the News
With great fanfare, California Gov. Gray Davis and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced another Delta deal June 8 and unveiled California’s Water Future: A Framework for Action.
“Not everyone likes every aspect of this agreement, but everyone likes substantial portions of this agreement,” said Davis, describing the 54-page framework as a “blueprint charting California’s course for the next 30 years.”
A combination of negotiated agreement and vision of the future, the framework outlines the course of action that CALFED agencies will take to resolve 13 pressing Bay-Delta issues. These issues range from ecosystem restoration to storage and conveyance to water conservation, transfers and quality.
With representatives from the urban/business, environmental/fishing and farming organizations on stage with Davis and Babbitt, the recent announcement was the first with truly comprehensive support since the Bay-Delta accord was announced in December 1994. With that short-term Delta deal, attention focused on a long-term solution as agency and stakeholder representatives labored for more than five years to develop a CALFED-endorsed plan of action.
“This is just a beginning,” Babbitt said. “We have a long way to go. We can do it, but we can only do it together.”
Long-touted as one of the nation’s most ambitious efforts to reach consensus on water issues, the CALFED Bay-Delta Program is comprised of state and federal agencies often on opposite sides of natural resource issues. Stakeholder input was sought at nearly every step of the way on proposals to resolve Bay-Delta woes – at least until the end. For the last few months, discussions on the CALFED proposal were conducted behind closed doors as top state and federal staff met to develop the negotiated framework.
Details of the proposals outlined in the framework will be further hammered-out in a legal document known as a “Record of Decision,” which will be completed this fall.
Most of the agencies and organizations with a stake in the Delta plan have remained guardedly optimistic since the framework’s release. But some have criticized the agreement. The Regional Council of Rural Counties, for example, has come out in opposition to the June 9 document, saying it opens up the door to state-imposed groundwater management.
Other people said the document did not offer enough detail on elements such as additional water storage and the proposed Environmental Water Account.
Although most of the stakeholders from the three main water-interest groups – cities, agricultural irrigation districts and environmental groups – accepted the need for private deal-making, the process generated criticism from some quarters. At a late June hearing before the House Water and Power Subcommittee, for example, several lawmakers complained that they were kept out of the process.
Some of the questions about details may be answered when CALFED releases its programmatic environmental documents later this summer. Others may be addressed in this fall’s Record of Decision. But many details will remain to be worked-out as CALFED moves to the next step – implementation.