Along the California-Oregon border, the Klamath Basin is in the midst of a record drought, pitting farmers against native tribes with historic water rights who are trying to protect endangered fish .
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In the drought-stricken Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border, water is precious. This year, Native American tribes and farmers are fighting over this declining resource. It is an indicator of future water wars in the West. Erik Neumann of Jefferson Public Radio explains.
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ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: Biologist Alex Gonyaw runs his Boston Whaler along the eastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake. It shows what it says is abundant habitat.
ALEX GONYAW: It’s a mosaic of cattails, willows, and tulips, or rushes.
NEUMANN: Almost 30 miles long, Upper Klamath Lake is home to several species of fish that only live here.
GONYAW: So the more hiding places there are for juvenile creatures, the better they generally tend to do.
NEUMANN: Two of them are called C’waam and Koptu in the traditional language of the Klamath tribes or, in English, the lost river and the shortnose sucker. Gonyaw says that in recent years, Koptu’s population has fallen to near extinction levels, from 20,000 to just 3,400 fish. The probable cause – poor water quality and loss of habitat caused by low water in this shallow lake.
GONYAW: There is probably a catastrophic event in the next few years.
NEUMANN: In addition to being protected under the Endangered Species Act, fish are culturally important to the Klamath tribes. They have historically survived on them.
At a recent gathering near Klamath Falls, Tribe President Don Gentry explained how the Klamath people prayed for the fish to return after harsh winters.
DON GENTRY: These fish are so important. We probably wouldn’t be here without these fish that have helped us survive.
NEUMANN: Gentry says tensions over the drought have given rise to underlying feelings about tribes.
GENTRY: There are racist comments going out, and, you know, people marginalize fish, the importance of fish and our tribes, and our treaty rights.
NEUMANN: The whole situation illustrates a problem with the treaty between the US government and the tribes. In 1864, the Klamath tribes ceded around 20 million acres of land in exchange for the right to hunt and fish.
GENTRY: What’s the point of a treaty if you don’t have the resources?
NEUMANN: Resources being fish, the Klamath tribes aren’t the only ones struggling with drought. This year, for the first time ever, farmers in the basin received virtually no water from the lake to irrigate crops.
One recent Thursday inside a red and white striped circus tent erected at the southern end of the lake, residents held a meeting at this self-proclaimed water crisis information center. BJ Soper, with the far-right People’s Rights Oregon group, addressed the crowd.
BJ SOPER: But I wanted to make a presentation that we prepared very quickly – understanding our rights when the government refuses to follow the law.
NEUMANN: The tent was intentionally placed in front of the head valves of the irrigation canal, which is operated by the US Bureau of Reclamation. This is where the water is controlled. At the rally, farmer Grant Knoll. He and a group of other residents threatened to force open the main doors and force the water back.
GRANT KNOLL: At this point the federal government isn’t moving unless there is a lot of pressure, so maybe that will be another pressure point.
NEUMANN: Knoll thinks irrigators already have a right to lake water. But many other farmers in the Klamath Basin believe civil disobedience would make the situation worse.
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NEUMANN: Just across the California border, farmer Scott Sues walks through dry, crackling brush at the edge of the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge. It is an area that can attract over a million migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway each spring and fall.
SCOTT SUES: No one alive has seen the lake in this state, where it’s a dry moonscape as it is.
NEUMANN: Sues attributes the problems to federal water management because it prioritizes endangered fish. The drought has created a volatile situation this year, he says, but he hopes for some sort of lasting solution.
PURSUIT: This will guarantee my children and the children of my neighbors the possibility of taking over their family farms.
NEUMANN: But for now, there is no long term solution. And with current climate trends, there is little reason to believe that abundant water will be available anytime soon.
For NPR News, I’m Erik Neumann in the Klamath Basin.
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