Climate change fuels a water rights conflict built on over a century of broken promises

Extreme drought and wildfires in the Upper Northwest have further imperiled an already fragile Klamath River Basin.

Fish are dying from disease that proliferates in warm water and low flows.

Farmers don't have enough water to sustain crops.

And hundreds of families are without water after their wells dried up.

The simple way to think about this crisis: There’s no longer enough water to go around to meet the needs of farmers and Native American populations as well as fish and birds.

For more than a century, the federal government has overseen an intricate and imperfect system of water distribution intended to sustain an ecosystem and an economy. The whole precarious balance was based on the assumption that enough snow would always fall, and melt, and fill the vast watershed of the Klamath River Basin, which straddles the border of California and Oregon and is home to about 124,000 people.

But this year, the region buckled under one of the worst droughts ever recorded.

For generations, Native Americans lived and fished in what was called the Everglades of the West. The channels of the watershed reached from remnants of ancient Lake Modoc in southern Oregon across the California line to the Pacific coast.

Then came Manifest Destiny and the federal government, staking a claim on the rugged, unspoiled land. The Klamath Project started in 1906 and transformed the basin’s hydrology by draining wetlands and routing water from Upper Klamath Lake through hundreds of miles of canals, tunnels, dikes and ditches. It irrigates more than 200,000 acres on some 1,400 farms, many auctioned off to World War I and World War II veterans. Some of their descendants work that land today.

The federal government also monitors the water levels in the lake to protect endangered fish essential to tribal life.

[Reservoirs are drying up as consequences of the Western drought worsen]

For the first time in more than a century, the region is so parched that the Bureau of Reclamation, which allocates water, has distributed none. No water for farmers, who grow alfalfa that feeds cattle in China, peppermint for tea exported to Europe, and potatoes used by Frito-Lay and In-N-Out Burger.

No water for the fish sacred to the Klamath Tribes, who revere the Lost River sucker, shortnose sucker and other species as central to their survival. No water for migratory birds, who rest and breed at two diminished wildlife refuges along the Pacific Flyway. And no water for hundreds of people who live around the Klamath Project. Their wells have run dry.

The extreme effects of climate-related drought have worsened a long-existing conflict between Native Americans and farmers and ranchers, all fighting for the resource essential to their survival.

The shores of Upper Klamath Lake were once covered by marshes and wetlands. Development and human intervention have eroded the ecosystem's natural cycle.

The consequences have been felt by tribes and others who fish downstream on the Klamath River.

Tribal leaders say the endangered fish are a warning of a larger disruption to the entire watershed.

The Everglades of the West

The Klamath Tribes have fought for decades to keep the one right the federal government had guaranteed: the ability to hunt and fish on land taken from them.

“Nature is obviously quite complicated. Everything is intertwined,” said Alex Gonyaw, senior fish biologist for the Klamath Tribes. “Agriculture came in and just modified absolutely everything you can think of in terms of wetlands and hydrology and the way the ecosystem functioned.”

The C’waam and Koptu fish essential to tribal culture once numbered in the tens of millions; now there are about 3,400 left in the wild, Gonyaw said. The young don’t live long enough to reproduce because of poor water quality in the Upper Klamath Lake.

Unrestricted cattle grazing upstream releases phosphorus into the lake, and as water levels fall due to irrigation, the concentration of contaminants kills the fish, Gonyaw said.

Development along the shores of the lake has also upset the balance. Without wetlands to filter out the contaminants, toxic algae thrives, ultimately suffocating the juvenile fish.

“Those fish were created specifically by our creator to take care of us,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council. “They’re part of our subsistence, a part of our culture, and also a part of our worldview.”

The Klamath, Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa Valley, Modoc and Yahooskin tribes all lived in the region, sustained by food in wetlands. The U.S. War Department sent surveyors John C. Fremont and Kit Carson to explore the Pacific territories for westward expansion.

The group killed Native Americans as they moved north; expedition member Thomas E. Breckenridge wrote that the men “had orders while in camp or on the move to shoot Indians on sight. While on the march the crack of a rifle and the dying yell of a native was not an unusual occurrence.”

When the group reached the Upper Klamath Lake in 1846, Klamath people killed three of them. In retaliation, Fremont’s party slaughtered more than a dozen Klamath people on the lakeshore.

That violence, not the first racist and hostile action toward the Indigenous people of Klamath, “kind of set a tone,” Gentry said, “just because people wanted what our people had.”

In 1864, the federal government and the tribes signed a treaty that transferred more than 20 million acres of native land in exchange for their right to hunt, fish and live on 1.5 million acres of reservation land. The decades of subjugation were punctuated in 1954 by Congress terminating the tribes’ federal recognition and buying the reservation land, which became national forest and logging acreage.

The government had promised fishing rights and water forever to the tribes.

But it also promised irrigation water forever to the overwhelmingly White farmers of the basin, who enjoyed political support, said Hannah Gosnell, an Oregon State University geography professor. The dueling promises have been in conflict for more than a century. Over the past decade, however, the tribes have won court approval to begin enforcing the water rights first established in that original 1864 treaty.

“The tables are turning now,” Gosnell said. “The power dynamics are changing, and it’s really hard for the irrigators to come to terms with.”

[California's Chinook salmon population is disappearing]

Across the California line, over half of the juvenile Chinook salmon born on the Klamath River this year have died of disease. In a normal year, freshwater from the lake flows downstream and west and improves the health of the Klamath River. This year, the Bureau of Reclamation prevented that outflow of water, called a “flushing flow,” to protect the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker in Upper Klamath Lake.

“If we don’t have the Klamath River and we don’t have healthy fish runs, it’s really hard to be a Yurok person,” said Barry McCovey, the tribe’s fishery department director. “It’s just as important to our people as the air that we breathe.”

The river’s dams also disrupt the migration of Chinook and coho salmon along the river, and in June, federal energy regulators approved a plan to remove four of the dams to comply with requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and to begin to restore the river. The dam removal will take time, but advocates for the fish and the tribes agree it’s a step in the right direction.

“When you dam a river, when you divert a river, when you change the river from what it’s used to doing for millions and millions of years,” McCovey said, “some things will suffer and others will prosper.”

Without water distribution this year, many farmers struggle to irrigate and have to let some acreage remain dry.

Angry and frustrated, they say their livelihood is at stake.

Many share what water there is.

Rich farmland and an ‘old-fashioned pickle jar’

Cutting off water from the Klamath Project also threatens a way of life and a legacy for many farmers.

They are worried, angry and frustrated. Some are struggling to pay employees and meet demand from distributors. Many are resourceful, sharing what water there is.

All have felt the weight of a historically parched year.

Scott Seus is a third-generation farmer who mainly grows horseradish and peppermint. His season started late, and every day has been a struggle. “There isn’t anything easy this year,” he said. “We’re having to work for every ounce of existence.”

He’s growing only about 40 percent of his land this year, although he still needs to pay water fees to maintain the other 60 percent. The crops he has grown this year are not as large or as green. “There’ll come a point here,” he said, “where we may have to make some hard decisions that might include walking away from fields.”

The Klamath Project turned the region’s agriculture into an industry. After World War II, plots were transferred to veterans whose names were picked out of “an old-fashioned pickle jar,” according to a 1947 Time magazine article. Any veteran with $2,000, two years of farm experience, and “habits of honesty, temperance, thrift and industry” could apply for one of the 60-to-141-acre plots. The plots were “acres of rich bottom land” that were “cultivated into fertile farm lots” by Japanese Americans, who had been forcefully detained at the nearby Tule Lake segregation center during the war.

Seus’s grandfather was one of the lucky names pulled from the pickle jar. His dad was just a baby when his family moved to their 70-acre plot in 1947, living out of a dusty old barracks from the camp. Soon the family built their business and the house in which Seus is now raising his son. “It’s absolutely in your blood, and it’s absolutely your pride,” Seus said. “It’s your identity.”

Cattle at a canal in Merrill, Ore., on July 29. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)
Cattle at a canal in Merrill, Ore., on July 29. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)

Back then, “it seemed like the water supplies were endless, so it really wasn’t for several decades that anyone started to realize,” said Todd Kepple, director of the Klamath County Museum, “we may not have enough water here to keep everyone whole.”

After the 2001 drought, the federal Bureau of Reclamation withheld water from farmers to preserve the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker protected under the Endangered Species Act. The agency based its decision on two federal biological studies that identified a minimum water level necessary for the species’s health.

Protests erupted, and Native Americans were hung in effigy, Gosnell said. During one rally, a brigade passed buckets filled with water from Upper Klamath Lake, dumping it into the main canal that feeds the project.

Eventually, farmers had enough with symbolic protests. They stormed the canal head gates and pried them open with a crowbar, releasing water into the project. U.S. Marshals were called in to contain the conflict, and the bureau eventually buckled, allotting some water to the farmers.

“I remember going to the bucket brigade when I was little,” said Hesston Gallup, who grows alfalfa for livestock in the United States, Japan and China. “Now I’m 30, and we’re facing the exact same problem we were when I was in elementary school.”

[The Northern Hemisphere has a punishing heat wave infestation]

This is the first year Gallup is farming on his own. He grew up on the family farm that his father and uncle started in the 1970s, and five years ago bought his uncle out. He says his 1,000-acre farm is down to a quarter or less of its average production, with no water from the project. He buys water from his local district wells and also has been irrigating with water his neighbors have shared from their private wells.

“Is this ever going to get fixed?” he asked. “I was planning to be there forever, like, you know, raise a family, kind of how I was raised,” he said. “And it’s that future is looking not very promising right now.”

In August, the federal government announced $15 million in drought relief for agricultural producers in the basin. Both Gallup and Seus point out that the farmers are not the only people suffering. They mention their employees and the trickle-down effect on local businesses and charitable organizations. The water deficit goes a lot deeper than the farmers and the fish, Gallup said. “Right now, there is no winner,” he said. “Everyone’s losing.”

The region's wildlife also are imperiled. Two important sanctuaries are almost bone-dry.

In normal years, runoff water from irrigators replenishes the refuges. This year, the refuges received no water from the Klamath Project.

Along the canals, wells have run dry and hundreds have turned to bottled water, in another consequence of an imperfect system.

Wildlife and waterfowl in peril

Also suffering are wildlife whose protected habitats rely on Klamath Project water.

The national wildlife refuges at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath are home to tens of thousands of waterfowl and are major stops for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. In normal years, runoff from water allocated to irrigators replenishes the refuges. This year, the refuges received no water from the project, and parts of the Tule Lake refuge were bone-dry and cracked after an emergency diversion of water.

Last year, more than 60,000 birds died of botulism in one of the worst outbreaks in years. This year, nearly all the ducks have vanished from the Lower Klamath refuge, the first migratory bird refuge established in the country. A recent aerial survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the vast preserve showed about 35,000 ducks this year compared with 1.5 million in 1948. The nearby Tule Lake refuge had only about 30,000 ducks in the survey, down from 3.5 million.

Although there has not been a severe outbreak of disease, Susan Sawyer, of the service, said that without a suitable habitat with water plants to feed on, local waterfowl are reproducing at extremely reduced rates, and most of the migratory birds are skipping the refuges all together.

Canada geese along the shoreline in the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California on July 29. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)
Canada geese along the shoreline in the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California on July 29. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)

The water demands of the entire region are so complex that solving one deficit creates several more someplace else.

Kelsey and Nathan Steinberg woke up one morning in early July without running water — their aging well ran dry. That week, they said, three of their neighbors experienced the same. Officials received hundreds of calls about wells gone dry between July and October. Recent powerful rainstorms in the West have barely made a dent, officials said.

“It was like one of those things that you just, like, never, ever really imagine,” Kelsey Steinberg said. “It’s like a heavy, deep feeling that is kind of, like, helpless.” They are still without well water, and can’t get a driller to deepen their well until next year.

Without distributed water this year, many farmers are drawing on groundwater to irrigate their crops, further depleting the supply that feeds domestic wells. Many shallow wells can usually can catch runoff flowing through the canals. But those, too, are dry in the drought.

The whole system is overtaxed and in debt. Over the last couple of decades, groundwater supply has dwindled, said Brad Kirby, manager of the Tulelake Irrigation District. “We’re in such a big hole,” he said, that even if the project turns on the water, “we can’t catch up.”

Link River Dam in Klamath Falls, Ore., on July 30. The dam holds water of the Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation.

‘Everyone is suffering’ and ‘nobody wins’

The acrimony that followed the water crisis of 2001 eventually yielded to collaboration. People from the region went together to lobby on Capitol Hill to fund a new water-sharing arrangement, and in 2010, the water users, tribes, irrigation districts, and California and Oregon signed a new kind of treaty, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.

The pact called for farmers to receive a small amount of water from the Klamath Project even in drier years and $500 million to fund several restorative initiatives, including wetland habitat restoration, irrigation infrastructure, and the removal or updating of hydroelectric dams to protect salmon in the Klamath River.

As Gosnell explains it, the agreement’s success came from compromise.

“They had gotten everybody together and everybody kind of figured out” a way to craft solutions, she said. “Not everybody really gets what they want, but sometimes you get what you need. That’s what the KBRA was. And it’s just too bad that Congress wouldn’t fund it.”

Many across the basin agree promises from all sides are falling short. “At the end of the day, the big culprit, I think, is the federal government,” Gosnell said, adding that many federal agencies have made many mistakes year after year, all independently of each other.

For now, the basin remains fractured.

“The tribes of the basin have been losing for a long time,” said McCovey, the Yurok fisheries director. And we’re to the point where we don’t have a whole lot left to give. We don’t have a whole lot left to sacrifice.”

Court rulings have affirmed the Klamath Tribes’ water rights. Farmers, who once were favored by water allotment, are even more frustrated.

“What we’re doing isn’t working,” said Tricia Hill, a fourth-generation potato farmer. “And by holding that water, it’s not helping the fish, and that’s … water on farms that would have made a huge difference."

[How to cope with the existential dread of climate change]

The tribes see the endangered fish species as a harbinger of doom. “We see this fractured ecosystem,” McCovey said. “We see the river suffering, and you see fish runs plummeting. When we start seeing all of this stuff, it sets off alarm bells inside of us because we’re having this fight or flight instinct. We know that this is a threat to our livelihood.”

The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is dried up near Dorris, Calif., on July 31. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)
The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is dried up near Dorris, Calif., on July 31. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)

As is in nature, everything is interconnected.

“Without a restored ecosystem, nobody gets anything,” Gosnell said. “Nobody wins.” But, she said, restoration is only part of the solution. The physical challenges can’t be overcome without addressing the human ones.

Part of that, Gosnell said, is returning land to the tribes.

The recent $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill provides $160 million for Fish and Wildlife to fund efforts over five years to protect and restore the habitats of the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker as well as salmon in the Klamath River. While relief and restoration efforts have long punctuated the Klamath conflict, no single investment of this scale has been made before.

Despite the suffering and the tensions this year, some remain optimistic the people of the basin can find common cause and new solutions.

"Farming is a profession of hope,” Hill said, “if the sun’s going to shine and the rain’s going to come, crops are going to grow.”

Gentry agreed. “You know, unfortunately, sometimes out of turmoil and struggle, good things can happen,” he said, “I’ve noticed that my own life, you know ... it’s amazing what we can survive through. And so to me, I see opportunity for a better future.”

About this story

Andrew Van Dam and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

Design and development by Jake Crump. Editing by Ann Gerhart, Tim Meko, Whitney Shefte, Matthew Callahan and Olivier Laurent. Copy editing by Allison Cho.

Sources: Chrysten Rivard/Trout Unlimited; hydrography and gage data from U.S. Geological Survey; Klamath Basin Hydrology Report/Oregon Water Resources Department; Canal A discharge data from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; 12-month precipitation percentile data from WestWide Drought Tracker; wildfire perimeter data from National Interagency Fire Center; habitat data from the Klamath Basin Integrated Fisheries Restoration and Monitoring Plan (IFRMP), United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Klamath Basin Birding Trail.

Nick Kirkpatrick is a visual reporter at The Washington Post focusing on integrated storytelling. Nick collaborates across the newsroom on visually driven projects that blend text with photos, videos, graphics and illustrations. They joined The Post in 2013 as a photo editor.
Laris Karklis has been working at the Washington Post since 2000.
James Cornsilk is a video journalist based in The Post's San Francisco bureau.
Mason Trinca is a Japanese-American documentary and editorial photographer.
Alice Li is a video reporter covering national politics. She has been at the Post since 2014 and has previously covered the 2016 presidential campaign.