In the Klamath River Basin, Water Rights Are Personal

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David Gensaw Jr. is the vice chair of the Yurok Tribe. It's one of many groups that rely on and have claim to the waters of the Klamath River. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

You’d think a bird would have an easy time finding a watery rest stop along the over 260-mile-long Klamath River. That should be especially true in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, a huge marshland along the Pacific Flyway. But in 2012 a dry year cut water supplies, which then chopped available wetlands in half and accelerated the spread of avian cholera. Up to 20,000 birds died off, including snow geese, ducks and coots.

Water rights along the Klamath River have always been a matter of survival, and birds aren’t the only ones competing for water -- they're just the last in line. The federal government manages a complex hierarchy of rights along the river, claimed by irrigators, tribes and fish in the two states it runs through: California and Oregon.

And shortages are becoming more common. “The challenges we have here are because we’ve promised too much water to too many people,” says Trout Unlimited’s Chrysten Lambert. “We’ve promised more water than there is here.”

While the November election has brought stories of uncertainty and division, in the Klamath Basin a sprawling and unlikely group of allies has been working across political lines for years to establish a sustainable sense of the river. Six years ago, they hashed out a huge compromise deal, to take out dams, sort out rights and allocate water. Without congressional support, that agreement died. But earlier this year, the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to abandon its interests, a move that doesn’t require congressional approval.

With dam removal now in process, sharing water remains a separate negotiation. Several parties to the original deal confirm talks about water rights and water allocation have begun.

The headwaters of Upper Klamath Lake, seen from the Wood River Valley in Oregon, are subject to a number of competing water rights from different groups.
The headwaters of Upper Klamath Lake, seen from the Wood River Valley in Oregon, are subject to a number of competing water rights from different groups. (Chrysten Lambert/Trout Unlimited)

“There is a water allocation that's needed,” says John Bezdek, a special counsel to the federal Secretary of the Interior. He points to the Department of the Interior’s many interests in the region: managing water and dams, managing tribal rights, and maintaining the health of fisheries. “Dam removal makes a lot of that easier, but dam removal does not finish the job on any of that.”


Finishing the job is a delicate operation. Paul Simmons, a lawyer for farmers and ranchers, says water rights are personal here for everyone. “It really is their identity and it’s an essential part of their culture,” he says. “When you start talking about changing that, it certainly is something that raises the stakes or makes the stakes different.”

Overlapping and Personal

Federally recognized tribes in Oregon claim the most senior water rights in the Klamath Basin. Three years ago, the state of Oregon recognized that the Klamath Tribes’ claim on Upper Klamath Lake dates to “time immemorial.”

In the lower basin, three more tribes in California -- the Karuk, the Yurok and the Hoopa -- claim water, too. And, while their rights vary, they share an interest in keeping enough water in the river to keep fish healthy.

Wendy Ferris-George, a Karuk tribal member, gets emotional when she talks about it. “I want the kids to be able to go down to the river and fish and bring home fish for their family,” she says, her voice quavering. “I want the grandmothers and grandfathers not to have to worry about their families starving. That’s what’s happening on the river. Our people are living in poverty, but to native people it’s our life.”

The Endangered Species Act also claims water, to sustain and nurture sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, and salmon and steelhead downriver. Complicating all of this, farmers and irrigators say they need water first promised to them by the federal government a century ago.

In recent years, when there’s not enough water, federal and state programs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on habitat restoration, fishery management, and even emergency aid for farmers. The Department of the Interior’s John Bezdek says an agreement would save money in the long run. “I believe that the longer we go without settlement, the more resources are hurting and the more it causes people to re-evaluate where they are,” Bezdek says. “But I also believe that this basin and this group of stakeholders, they’ve been to the edge and back.”

Back From The Edge

A former G.I. picks a homestead number out of a pickle jar -- one way a number of families ended up in the Klamath Basin.
A former GI picks a homestead number out of a pickle jar -- one way a number of families ended up in the Klamath Basin. (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation/Courtesy OIT Klamath Waters Collection)

Among those stakeholders are farmers and ranchers on a quarter-million acres of land, some of it former marshes drained by the federal government more than a century ago after it dammed the Klamath and began storing water for irrigation in Upper Klamath Lake.

The edge that Bezdek is talking about came 15 years ago, when water shortages forced the federal government to turn off the spigot to more than a quarter-million acres of land. That decision sent guys like Scott Seus, a third-generation farmer in Tulelake, scrambling.

And on a busy fall day, Seus hops into a combine to harvest mint. He says he wants to make sure a fourth-generation Seus can farm here.

“My grandfather was a homesteader here in 1947. He drew a number out of the pickle jar,” says Seus. Former GIs would draw a number and then stick a pin in a map to show where they wanted to homestead.

“They actually lived in one of the barracks that was part of the Japanese internment camp here,” he says. “The people that survived here were the tough ones. And since 2001, our community gets smaller and smaller, and there’s less and less people here that are survivors.”

Seus has survived by diversifying risk and cost in his crops. He grows mint, horseradish, onions, garlic and grain. The amount, and his income, depend on the water available.

“I've got to know that I've got water next year to get through,” he says.

Scott Seus farms organic mint for tea. His crops are watered by the Klamath River through a federal irrigation project.
Scott Seus farms organic mint for tea. His crops are watered by the Klamath River through a federal irrigation project. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

At the same time, Seus says, he’s gained an understanding of the needs of others along the Klamath. In 2002, a year after his water was shut off, tens of thousands of salmon died downstream, in Yurok country, near Blue Creek. It was a devastating loss to the tribes downriver, and one which galvanized their efforts to remove four dams that have long blocked fish passage up the main stem of the Klamath.

“I'm happy for them that they're going to get the dams out ... and it's going to make everything right,” he says, about the tribes, which farmers like him used to only see as opponents. His support is genuine, but tempered. “I'm not here to say, 'Don't do that,' but I am expecting them to understand that I need to farm, too.”

Years of drought appear to be ending in the Klamath Basin, and predictions suggest a snowy winter. But Seus still supports an agreement to share water, because he says the real enemy for farmers like him now is doubt. “There is only one path forward,” says Seus. “That's that everybody's got to get back together and try to see this thing through.”

Several Klamath water users say they don’t know what to expect from the incoming Trump administration. So far, it’s brought uncertainty, the exact thing that guys like Scott Seus try to avoid. For now, water users in this area stand by the idea that the best solution to their problems still lies with each other.