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Klamath Basin - Pro Marshland

Rogue Group

Oregon Chapter Sierra Club

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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.

This item is part of a JSTOR Collection.

- Rogue Walker - a newsletter of the Rogue Group Sierra Club (Water Starved Klamath Basin...)

- Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis

- In the Klamath River Basin...


To view these pages in their original format you CLICK HERE


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

ecologically sustainable.

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.

Image of Klamath Basin - Pro Marshland