The Klamath Tribes of southern Oregon have shown great courage in exercising a “call on the river” to protect instream flows in the rivers of the Upper Klamath Basin. Their water call helps native fishes and wetlands, but has stirred a backlash from ranchers who truck their cattle in from California.
“In our language, our name E’ukskni – translated as ‘people of the lake’ – that tells you our association with the water,” Lynn Schoncin Sr., a former Tribal Chairman, told me. “We were fishermen. We lived near the water, and used cattails and tules for basketmaking and housing.”
As the tribes sought to assert their treaty rights dating from 1864, courts established a tribal water right to maintain sufficient water flows for the fishes and water plants required for subsistence, dating “from time immemorial.” These rulings gave the Klamath Tribes first priority to the water, a priority that trumps later agricultural water claims.
“In 1900, we used to have salmon up here,” observed Clinker Cole, a former Tribes game commission member. “My grandfather signed a deposition in the 1940s, saying that he harvested 700 to 800 pounds of salmon every year.”
But four dams were built on the Klamath River downstream from Klamath Lake, blocking salmon migrations and boosting parasites. That meant that shortnose and Lost River suckers, called c’waam in the Klamath language and known colloquially as “mullet,” were the last fishes remaining to sustain the tribes.
“After the salmon quit coming, they turned to the mullet,” Cole recalled.
A waterlily known as wokas was historically a primary food staple for the tribes. “When the first white people arrived, there were more than 10,000 acres of waterlily plants,” said Schoncin. “Now there’s not even close to 10 acres.”
According to Cole, rivers flowing into Klamath Lake had adequate water until the 1940s. At that time, the Klamath Tribes were one of the wealthiest in the United States. In 1954, the Klamath Tribes were forcibly terminated as a sovereign nation by an edict from Congress, unilaterally abrogating the 1864 treaty. The tribes lost about 1.8 million acres of ancestral lands.
That’s when the trouble really started over Klamath Basin water.
With tribal lands turned over to the Forest Service, logging increased rapidly. “Water starts at the top of the mountain, that’s what our people say,” said Schoncin. “But the Forest Service logged off the tops of the mountains, and now there’s no overstory to hold the water.” Added Cole, “It takes hundreds of years to produce a forest, but they cut it all down at once.”
Irrigated agriculture expanded rapidly in the Klamath Basin. “There’s a lot of pesticides and a lot of fertilizer that gets dumped into the lake from irrigation,” said Schoncin. “Over half the water that used to drain into the lakes just didn’t make it anymore,” added Cole.
These changes were devastating to the river system. With the region’s porous volcanic bedrock, irrigation water is drawn out of interconnected rivers and groundwater. These depletions are exacerbated by water pumped out by groundwater wells to water livestock. “When you get a low water level in the lake, that promotes algae,” observed Schoncin. “When algae increases, the oxygen decreases, and you get massive fish kills.” With the juvenile c’waam succumbing in algae-choked lakes, these fishes were listed as Endangered Species.
A decade ago, Congress stepped in to broker an agreement to restore some tribal lands, remove the dams blocking the Klamath River salmon runs, and to extinguish the tribes’ senior water rights. But the agreement was never adopted by Congress.
The tribes’ legally recognized water right only allows the tribes to keep water in the rivers to benefit the fishes and wetlands that are the basis for their culture and subsistence. That’s good news for everyone hoping to restore healthy rivers and lakes in the beautiful Klamath Basin, but local politicians, ag interests, and newspapers are pressuring the tribes to adopt a new agreement, sometimes threatening them with escalating racism if they don’t cut a deal to relinquish their water rights.
“We can walk in stores around here, and some of them don’t want to wait on us, and customers make snide comments to us,” said Schoncin. “I think that a lot of them feel that with Trump, they’re going to be able to do whatever they want to do, especially when it comes to relations with the tribes.”
Rather than attacking the Klamath Tribes for exercising their legal rights in defense of fish and wildlife, upper basin agricultural interests should focus on curtailing their own wasteful water uses.
Dam removal, and providing sufficient water to National Wildlife Refuges downstream, remain as challenges that need to be addressed. But for now, the tribes’ water call represents a strong first step toward sustainable stewardship of the Klamath river system.
Erik Molvar is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting western watersheds and wildlife.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.