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Drought Has Pitted Farmers Against Native Tribes Protecting Endangered Fish


In the drought-stricken Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border, water is precious. This year, Native American tribes and farmers are competing for this shrinking resource. It's an indicator of future water wars in the West. Jefferson Public Radio's Erik Neumann explains.


ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: Biologist Alex Gonyaw aims his Boston Whaler along the eastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake. He's showing off what he says used to be abundant habitat.

ALEX GONYAW: It's a mosaic of cattails and willows and tules, or bullrushes.

NEUMANN: At almost 30 miles long, Upper Klamath Lake is home to several fish species that only live here.

GONYAW: So the more hiding places for juvenile creatures, the better they generally tend to do.

NEUMANN: Two of them are called C’waam and Koptu in the traditional Klamath Tribes' language or, in English, the lost river and shortnose sucker. Gonyaw says in recent years, the Koptu population dropped to near extinction levels from 20,000 to just 3,400 fish. The likely cause - poor water quality and habitat loss driven by low water in this shallow lake.

GONYAW: There's a catastrophic event likely in the next few years.

NEUMANN: Besides being protected under the Endangered Species Act, the fish are culturally significant to the Klamath Tribes. They've historically subsisted on them.

At a recent rally in nearby Klamath Falls, tribal chairman Don Gentry talked about how the Klamath people prayed for the fish to return after hard winters.

DON GENTRY: Those fish are so important. We wouldn't be here likely without those fish that helped us survive.

NEUMANN: Gentry says tensions over the drought have brought up underlying feelings about the tribes.

GENTRY: There's racist comments that come out, and, you know, folks marginalize the fish, the importance of the fish and our tribes and our treaty rights.

NEUMANN: The whole situation illustrates a problem with the treaty between the U.S. government and the tribes. In 1864, the Klamath Tribes gave up around 20 million acres of land in exchange for the right to hunt and fish.

GENTRY: What good is a treaty if you don't have the resources?

NEUMANN: The resources being fish - the Klamath Tribes are not the only people struggling because of the drought. This year for the first time ever, farmers in the basin received virtually no water from the lake to irrigate crops.

On a 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-described water crisis info center. BJ Soper, with the far-right group People's Rights Oregon, spoke to the crowd.

B J SOPER: But I wanted to do a presentation we put together really quickly - understanding our rights when the government refuses to follow the law.

NEUMANN: The tent was intentionally placed across from the irrigation canal head gates, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It's where the water is controlled. At the rally is farmer Grant Knoll. He and a group of other residents have been threatening to break into the head gates and force the water back on.

GRANT KNOLL: The federal government at this point doesn't move unless a lot of pressure comes, so maybe this will be another pressure point.

NEUMANN: Knoll believes irrigators have an existing right to water in the lake. But many other Klamath Basin farmers think civil disobedience would make the situation worse.


NEUMANN: Just across the border in California, farmer Scott Sues walks through dry, crackling brush on the edge of the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge. It's an area that can attract more than a million migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway every spring and fall.

SCOTT SUES: Nobody alive has seen the lake in this condition, where it's a dry moonscape like it is.

NEUMANN: Sues blames the problems on federal water management because it prioritizes the endangered fish. The drought has created a volatile situation this year, he says, but he hopes for some kind of sustainable solution.

SUES: That will ensure my kids and my neighbor's kids the opportunity to take over their family farm operations.

NEUMANN: But for now, there is no long-term fix. And with current climate trends, there's little reason to think abundant water will be available anytime soon.

For NPR News, I'm Erik Neumann in the Klamath Basin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erik Neumann
Erik Neumann is an experienced radio producer and reporter who grew up alongside the Puget Sound. He's passionate about telling the human stories behind America's health care system, public lands and the environment, and the arts. He got his Masters degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Erik joined JPR after several years as a staff reporter at KUER, the NPR station in Salt Lake City, where he focused on health care coverage. He was a 2019 Mountain West fellow with the Association of Health Care Journalists and is a contributor at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics.