Klamath Basin water accords crumble
The last time water was this scarce in the Klamath Basin, a rugged agricultural area straddling the California-Oregon border, farmers clashed with U.S. marshals and opened locked canal gates with blowtorches so they could irrigate. Nearly 10,000 agriculture activists from around the U.S. later converged on the region to hold symbolic "bucket brigade" protests.
Months of unrest ended after then-Vice President Dick Cheney personally intervened and worked behind the scenes to have water delivered to the growers — a decision that tribal fishing communities downstream blamed for killing 68,000 salmon in the fall of 2002.
Now the stage is set for another round of conflict on the Klamath River, the result of a dry winter and a court ruling by a federal judge in San Francisco.
In late April, Judge William Orrick, siding with Indian tribes and commercial fishermen, ruled that a significant share of water that farmers needed for their spring planting is going downstream to aid troubled fish populations.
A few days later, the farmer-run Klamath Irrigation District, in a letter from their attorney, told the federal government that it planned to open the gates on a government-owned canal in southern Oregon. That would allow Klamath water to flow onto onion, potato and wheat fields in time for planting season.
The district operates the gates under a contract with the federal government. It considers the water "the private property of Klamath irrigators," according to the letter, which was first reported by the Herald and News of Klamath Falls, Ore.
So far the farmers haven't followed through on their threat. Federal officials have been working furiously in the past week to keep the peace on the Klamath and avoid a repeat of 2001.
"The parties I have been working with in the basin, I believe, are not wanting to see those kinds of conflicts," said Alan Mikkelsen, a senior U.S. Interior Department official who has been assigned by the Trump administration to negotiate water sharing agreements in the region. "I think that ultimately reason is to prevail."
But anxiety persists along the Klamath, from its headwaters in the high deserts of southern Oregon to where it flows into the Pacific in Northern California.
"It's pretty ugly," said Scott White of the Klamath Water Users Association, an umbrella group that represents the Klamath Irrigation District and other water districts in the region, which includes Siskiyou and Modoc counties in California. "I have not felt tension in this community like I feel now. It is worrisome. I can't tell you what's going to come of it."
The Klamath Irrigation District's lawyer, Nathan Rietmann, couldn't be reached for comment. The district's manager John Wolf declined comment.
Whether the peace holds has implications across California and the West. Much of California is reliant on the Klamath River in some way. Millions of acres of Central Valley farms and major cities are supplied in part by the Klamath, through diversions from its largest tributary, the Trinity River.
Farmers unilaterally deciding to take water could put the Trump administration, not known for being sympathetic to Indian tribes and environmentalists, on the spot. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation oversees water deliveries but said it would defer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if farmers violate the judge's order. However, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife said her agency's officers wouldn't stop farmers if they try to open the canal's head gates.
Environmentalists are watching the conflict closely, fearful it could embolden others to break federal environmental law. Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said he's worried the Trump administration is playing "hot potato" instead of making a plan to protect the fish.
"It sounds like they're scrambling to get out of the way," he said.
Locals in the Klamath Basin also worry that any turmoil could be used by outside activist groups looking to bring national attention to causes that have faded since the Standing Rock pipeline protests and the acquittals of Cliven Bundy and his allies in their high-profile standoffs with the federal government.
"The very legitimate concerns that our community has could end up getting hijacked by outside interests who see this as a platform to address their issues, which may have nothing to do with our community," said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Falls, Ore.-based Family Farm Alliance.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates a network of dams, pumps and canals known collectively as the Klamath Project. The region covers about 200,000 acres of land on both sides of the border, serving several hundred farmers.
In 2017, Judge Orrick in San Francisco ordered Reclamation to use more of the Klamath's waters to flush out a lethal parasite called C. shasta, which has devastated fish populations.
Orrick's ruling was a major victory for the Hoopa Valley, Karuk and Yurok, California's three largest Native American tribes, whose economies rely heavily on salmon fishing in the Klamath's and Trinity's lower reaches. Although it isn't harmful to humans, C. shasta killed much of the threatened juvenile coho salmon population during the recent five-year drought.
The drought and a separate disease also plagued another salmon species vital to the tribes, the Chinook. For the first time in history, so few adult Chinook returned to spawn last year that the tribes had to forgo their fall fishing season. The fish are so important to the river tribes' cultural identities and their impoverished communities, tribal health officials were worried about suicide outbreaks.
Following the 2017 order, the Bureau of Reclamation devised a plan to stave off disease outbreaks. Each spring, it would hold back water in Upper Klamath Lake. If a large enough share of the fish population were infected, the agency would release heavy flows from a reservoir to flush out the parasites. A pulse was sent out earlier this week.
More water for fish means less water for agriculture, and it means the water will get delivered later than usual to farmers. By the time the growing season winds down, Reclamation expects to deliver 200,000 acre-feet of water to Klamath farmers, said agency spokeswoman Laura Williams. (An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.)
That's more than twice the amount they received in 2001, when farmers staged their protests. But it's only about 50 percent of what farmers would get in a wet year. It's even less than the amount received during recent drought years, when farmers could count on shipments of 250,000 acre-feet or more.
Farmers are expected to augment the deliveries by pumping groundwater. That will get them "to the realm of 75 percent of a normal water supply," Mikkelsen said. "It's a timing issue more than anything else."
Farmers, however, say timing is everything. Given the brutally short growing season in the Klamath Basin's high desert, they say even a modest delay in water deliveries would be a disaster for the region's $400 million-a-year farm economy. Last month, they pleaded with Orrick to modify his 2017 ruling and provide relief to agriculture.
"Anguish over late or nonexistent water deliveries and resulting job insecurities is permeating our communities, including farm laborers and other residents," Luke Robison, a potato farmer in southern Oregon, wrote in a court filing.
Orrick wouldn't budge.
Within days, the Klamath Irrigation District, one of the largest water agencies in the basin, decided to push back. The district's lawyer sent Reclamation a letter May 3 threatening to open the gate so farmers could begin planting.
Klamath's threat touched off a week's worth of furious negotiations aimed at staving off an all-out conflict. So far, the peace has held, in part because the region's power company, PacifiCorp, has agreed to lend some of its water for hydroelectric generation to the farmers so they can plant at least some of their crops.
In addition, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who represents the area, says $10.3 million in federal disaster relief funds is on its way to the basin's farmers.
The Klamath sits in a part of the West where anti-government sentiment, often called the Sagebrush Rebellion, runs high.
The basin is just 200 miles west of Burns, Ore. That's where armed right-wing activists, led by the sons of anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy, seized control of a federal wildlife refuge for 41 days in 2016 to protest government land policies.
After the "Bucket Brigade" protests of 2001, some fear the Klamath could see demonstrations on a similar scale if farmers don't get their way.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum are the Standing Rock demonstrations. There, thousands of Native Americans and their allies spent months in 2016 clashing with law enforcement in protests over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.
Ryan Jackson, the chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said that if the farmers upstream take action his tribe would first lodge a formal legal complaint.
If that doesn't stop them, Jackson said "all options are on the table," including rallying national Native American activists to protest those "who would undermine our rights, our culture and our traditions."
"Standing Rock, that's an issue that the Indians talk about often," Jackson said. "The more these types of things happen, the more that you're going to get people energized around trying to preserve what it is that we have left. The Klamath and the Trinity rivers are part of that."
Mikkelsen, deputy Interior commissioner and Trump's point man on the Klamath, said he is optimistic it won't come to that.
Mikkelsen has been working to resurrect the water-sharing and river-restoration agreements envisioned in settlements reached in 2005 among farmers, tribes and environmentalists.
The settlements died in 2015, however, after congressional Republicans refused to authorize the millions of dollars to fund the landmark accords. The Repulicans' sticking point was the settlement also included a plan to decommission four of PacifiCorp's hydroelectric dams blocking fish migrating up the Klamath River.
In the years since, California, Oregon and the power company have begun working with tribes and federal officials to tear down the dams without congressional approval.
With the dam-removal component seperate, Mikkelsen has what he said is a framework to forge a lasting peace on the Klamath.
"I think at the end of the day, we're looking for long-term solutions," he said.