Oregon Chapter Sierra Club
Klamath Basin Crisis
In the drought summer of 2001, a dramatic event occurred in the obscure Klamath region of northern California and Southern Oregon: the Bureau of Reclamation closed the headgates of the Klamath Project, halting irrigation deliveries in order to protect endangered fish. For the first time, the Endangered Species Act had caused a large-scale curtailment of water delivery from a federal project. Several months later, a National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council committee issued a report critical of the scientific basis for the decision to cut off water deliveries, fueling controversy in the already deeply polarized region. The Klamath crisis and its continuing aftermath provide an important case study of the key challenges facing many communities in the arid West: how to move beyond a long history of inefficient irrigation, remedy the ecosystem degradation that system has produced, and make the transition from a colonial commodity-production economy to a modern, globally integrated one. The Klamath is a classic degraded, unsustainable basin, exhibiting all the environmental and economic woes of the "new" West. It is also a place where the ESA, which has been widely regarded as an important tool for forcing states and local populations to take into account new social realities, has been aggressively applied.
This article explores the choices that led to the Klamath crisis, the crisis itself, and its aftermath. Although there are many ways to tell the Klamath story, the narrative we find most compelling is one of a clash of cultures that must be resolved as the arid West confronts its future. Farmers, environmentalists, and Indians are all fighting to protect their ideal of the landscape and their relationship to it. A similar culture war is played out within the federal government, as the Bureau of Reclamation and the wildlife agencies fight for supremacy in the Basin. We draw several lessons from the Klamath experience, all of which we believe apply more broadly.
First, the pressing question, one that is complex from both a social and a scientific perspective, is how to manage the transition to a sustainable landscape in a fair and equitable manner. The deep cultural divide between groups affected by the use of water and lands in the region, and the pervasive uncertainties about the legal rights and responsibilities of those groups, have made the transition extremely difficult.
Second, overemphasis on science as the arbiter of the legal, and indirectly of the cultural, disputes has deepened the cultural divide. Science plays a major role in the resolution of environmental disputes; it is often seen as the only potential unifying standard among parties with very different world views. Unfortunately, because of data gaps, uncertainties, and disagreements about values rather than facts, science frequently does not eliminate disagreement among opposing parties. In those circumstances, the intense battle for the high scientific ground that typically results is ultimately counter-productive, diverting attention from the difficult social choices that must be made.
Third, solving conflicts with deep cultural implications over water (or other limited resources) is difficult and painful, so delay and avoidance have been common tactics. The Klamath experience teaches us that delay only serves to make the conflicts sharper, and therefore more difficult to resolve when they can no longer be avoided. That lesson goes for irrigators as well as government agencies. Finally, a more comprehensive ecosystem-based approach than is currently available is needed to encourage and support the transition to sustainability. State and federal agencies must work toward common solutions, and resource use issues (such as water allocation) must not be treated as separable from pollution issues (such as water quality control). The ESA can catalyze, but ultimately cannot force, a move to a more comprehensive approach. We offer the process that led to the current Florida Everglades restoration experiment as one possible model for that transition.
A CONSERVATION VISION FOR THE KLAMATH BASIN
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COALITION FOR THE KLAMATH BASIN MARCH 2000
The Klamath Basin
The Klamath Basin is one of the nation’s great ecological treasures. Considered a
“western Everglades,” this area in northern California and southern Oregon once contained some
350,000 acres of shallow lakes, freshwater marshes, wet meadows, and seasonally flooded
basins. The 200-mile long Klamath River was among the most productive salmon rivers in the
west. Lakes and streams in the upper Klamath Basin contained great populations of C’Wam and
Quando (i.e., Lost River and Shortnose Suckers) and spring salmon. These fish provided a major
food source for Native tribes. Early white explorers to the Basin were astounded by spectacular
concentrations of ducks, geese, swans, grebes, pelicans, and other birds. Trappers with the
Hudson Bay Company harvested beaver, otter, marten, and other fur-bearing animals here.
Damming and diversion of rivers and draining of wetlands in the upper river basin have
taken an enormous toll on the Klamath Basin’s ecology and wildlife as well as a once robust
lower river fishing economy. More than 75 percent of the Basin’s wetlands have been drained
and converted to agriculture. Logging, grazing, fire suppression, road construction, and other
factors have also impacted the area’s ecology dramatically. The hydrology of the Klamath River
and related streams and lakes has been dramatically altered and water quality has been severely
degraded. Klamath River Coho salmon are listed as a federally threatened species and Kupu and
Tshuam are now endangered. In some years, water quality from the Upper Klamath has been so
poor that salmon runs far downstream have been destroyed. An estimated 6,870 fishing-dependent
jobs amounting to more than $137 million in total personal income have been lost
from the Klamath Basin economy as a direct result of salmon declines. Fishing jobs from Coos
Bay, Oregon to Fort Bragg, California have been affected (Figure 2). Hundreds of fishing guides
once operated on the Klamath River and fishermen supported numerous businesses, particularly
in the winter steelhead season when logging was inactive. With the decline of the fisheries,
many of the guides and other businesses supported by the fishermen, have gone out of business
or had to diversify into other income areas. White water enthusiasts still use the Klamath River.
However, clients and staff often complain about the water quality of the river.
Even in its diminished form, the Klamath Basin still attracts nearly 80 percent of the
Pacific Flyway’s waterfowl and supports the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the
lower 48 states. Salmon still migrate in the Klamath River and enormous trout still reside in
lakes and streams. The Klamath River Basin can be restored and with it much of the local
fishing-based economy. Ecological restoration in the Klamath Basin can help ensure a healthy economy and
high quality of life in the region. The Klamath River Basin should support vibrant Native American,
sport, and commercial fishing, and wildlife/wildland-oriented recreational opportunities. The
Klamath Basin can also support a healthy agricultural economy that is ecologically sustainable.
**The two maps (Klamath River Basin, and Historic & Current Wetlands in the Klamath
Project Area) are in a separate PDF file.**
A Coalition for the Klamath Basin
The Klamath Basin Coalition is an alliance of local, regional, and national organizations
dedicated to conserving and restoring the Klamath Basin. Founding members include
Institute for Fisheries Resources, Klamath Basin Audubon Society, Klamath Forest
Alliance, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Oregon Chapter Sierra Club, Pacific Coast
Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Water Watch, and The Wilderness Society. We
have pledged to work together to promote and implement the vision and actions
presented here. We have pledged to work together to promote and implement the vision
and actions presented here. We invite constructive feedback from all interested parties
and invite other organizations to join our coalition.
Our vision is to restore a healthy, naturally diverse, and productive Klamath Basin
ecosystem by reestablishing, to as great a degree as feasible, natural hydrological
conditions and ecological functions throughout the entire basin. This should be
accomplished through a comprehensive, ecosystem restoration program.
The goal of these efforts should be to restore “normative” conditions, under which
ecological processes occur under natural patterns of variation, throughout the Klamath
Basin. Restoration efforts must comply fully with the Endangered Species Act and the
Clean Water Act, and satisfy all responsibilities to Native American tribal rights.
Viable populations of native species should be restored to the Basin. Salmon stocks in
the Klamath River should be restored to a level that not only satisfies the requirements of
the Endangered Species Act but also supports Native American tribal rights, and the
commercial and sport fishing economies of the river and coastal communities in Oregon and
Ecological restoration in the Klamath Basin can help ensure a healthy economy and high
quality of life in the region. The Klamath River Basin should support vibrant Native
American, sport, and commercial fishing, and wildlife/wildlands-oriented recreational
opportunities. The Klamath Basin can also support a healthy agricultural economy that is
Our vision will be advanced by implementing the actions described below. Many of
these actions can be taken cost-effectively, with few impacts to existing uses, and will in
themselves contribute substantially to the regional economy.