Klamath River management pivotal in a brewing California-Oregon water crisis

By Emma Marris, The Atlantic, June 5, 2021

Federal and state governments made promises about land and water rights to generations of indigenous people and American settlers across the West. However, “the natural abundance those promises were based on has been squandered by generations of mismanagement.”

“In the Klamath Basin, in Southern Oregon and Northern California … Klamath tribal members haven’t been able to exercise their ‘exclusive right of taking fish in the streams and lakes,’ as protected in an 1864 treaty, for decades, because the fish keep dying.

“The Klamath Basin’s water problems can be solved, even as the climate changes,” through policy, investment, and partnership with farmers.

“[R]eturning land- and water-management responsibilities to the tribes is smart policy, because they are highly motivated to preserve the ecologies that make their homelands home …

“[W]ater allocations need to be managed collaboratively by all users, likely in the form of a comprehensive settlement.”

This would require reducing the water promised to agricultural workers — a controversial proposition.

“A soft approach would be to reduce the promises made by the project opportunistically, as producers without interested heirs retire, nibbling away at the total water allocation without suddenly unraveling agricultural communities.”

Wetland restoration is also needed to protect and foster stream, river, and lake ecosystems. However, even with investments in wetland restoration and nutrient management, “the water quality in the lake could take decades to improve enough to see juvenile fish survive. In the meantime, many adult fish are nearing the end of their natural life. So an insurance population is essential: Currently, the clearest one is part of an existing project to rear captive [endangered fish species special to the Klamath Tribes], and it needs continued support.

“The Klamath Tribes are focused on lake fish; downriver tribes are worried about salmon runs in the Klamath River, which connects the lake to the Pacific Ocean. To keep these fish alive and to honor rights to fish here, the dams on the Klamath River must come down. This is already in the works. … Some day, the salmon may once again run all the way up to Upper Klamath Lake, creating a living connection between the tribes and supporting them culturally and economically.

“So that’s how you end a water war. Respect Indigenous sovereignty. Make water allocations predictable and reduce the amount of water going to crops and pastures over time. Fix lake-water quality through nutrient management and wetland restoration. Take out the dams. I reckon you could do it all with $1 billion — beer money, these days — and it could serve as a model for the entire West.”

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