‘Nobody’s winning’: Drought upends life in Klamath basin straddling California-Oregon border
TULE LAKE — Ben DuVal knelt in a barren field near the California-Oregon border and scooped up a handful of parched soil as dust devils whirled around him and birds flitted between empty irrigation pipes.
DuVal’s family has farmed this land for three generations, and this summer, for the first time, he and hundreds of others who rely on a federally managed lake to quench their fields aren’t getting any water from it at all.
As the farmland goes fallow, Native American tribes along the 257-mile-long (407-kilometer) river that flows from the lake to the Pacific watch helplessly as fish that are inextricable from their culture hover closer to extinction.
This summer, a historic drought and its consequences are tearing communities apart and attracting outside attention to a water crisis years in the making. Competition over Klamath River water has always been intense, but now there is simply not enough, and all the stakeholders are suffering.
"Everybody depends on the water in the Klamath River for their livelihood. That’s the blood that ties us all together,” DuVal said of the competing interests. “Nobody’s coming out ahead this year. Nobody’s winning.”
Those living the nightmare worry the extreme drought is a harbinger of global warming.
“The system is crashing ... for people up and down the Klamath Basin,” said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, which is monitoring a massive fish kill on the river. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Twenty years ago, when water feeding the irrigation system was drastically reduced amid another drought, the crisis became a national rallying cry for the political right, and some protesters opened the main irrigation canal in violation of federal orders.
This time, many irrigators reject the presence of anti-government activists. Farmers who need federal assistance to stay afloat fear ties to the far right could hurt them.
Meanwhile, toxic algae is blooming in the basin’s main lake, and two national wildlife refuges critical to migratory birds are drying out.
The conditions have exacerbated a water conflict that traces its roots back more than a century.
Beginning in 1906, the federal government reengineered a complex system of lakes, wetlands and rivers in the 10 million-acre (4 million-hectare) Klamath River Basin to create tens of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland.
The Klamath Reclamation Project draws its water from the 96-square-mile (248-square-kilometer) Upper Klamath Lake. But the lake is also home to suckerfish central to the Klamath Tribes’ culture and creation stories.
In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed two species of sucker fish as endangered. The federal government must keep the lake at a minimum depth to support the fish — but this year, amid exceptional drought, there was not enough water to do that and supply irrigators.
“Agriculture should be based on what’s sustainable. There’s too many people after too little water," said Don Gentry, the Klamath Tribes chairman.
With the Klamath Tribes enforcing their senior water rights to help suckerfish, there is also no extra water for downriver salmon.
The Karuk Tribe last month declared a state of emergency, citing climate change and the worst hydrologic conditions in the Klamath River Basin in modern history. Karuk tribal citizen Aaron Troy Hockaday Sr. is a fourth-generation fisherman but says he hasn’t caught a fish in the river since the mid-1990s.
“I got two grandsons that are 3 and 1 years old. I’ve got a baby grandson coming this fall," he said. “How can I teach them how to be fishermen if there’s no fish?”
The downstream tribes’ problems are compounded by hydroelectric dams that block the path of migrating salmon.
In most years, the tribes 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the southwest of the farmers, where the river reaches the ocean, ask the Bureau of Reclamation to release pulses of extra water from Upper Klamath Lake. The extra water mitigates outbreaks of a parasitic disease that proliferates when the river is low.
This year, the federal agency refused those requests.
Now, the parasite is killing thousands of juvenile salmon in the lower Klamath River, where the Karuk and Yurok tribes have coexisted with them for millennia. An average of 63% of fish caught last month in research traps near the river’s mouth were dead.
“This is all unprecedented,” said Jamie Holt, lead fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe. “Where do you go from here? When do you start having the larger conversation of complete unsustainability?”
Near the river’s source, some of the farmers who are seeing their lives upended by the same drought say a guarantee of less water — but some water — each year would be better than the parched fields they have now. Some worry problems in the basin are being blamed on a way of life they also inherited.
“I know turning off the project is easy,” said Tricia Hill, a fourth-generation farmer. “But sometimes the story that gets told ... doesn’t represent how progressive we are here and how we do want to make things better for all species. This single-species management is not working for the fish — and it’s destroying our community and hurting our wildlife.”
DuVal’s daughter dreams of taking over the family farm someday. But DuVal isn’t sure he and his wife, Erika, can hang onto the land if things don’t change.
“We had a plan on how we’re going to grow our farm and to be able to send my daughters to a good college,” said DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. “And that plan just unravels further and further with every bad water year.”