The International Conference on Food Futures will take place August 31 - September 4, 2022.

From Conflict to Collaboration on the Klamath River

Swish.  Another plastic bucket drops in front of you.  You swim around, pumping your gills furiously.  What’s going on?  If only you could have climbed on shore, you would have seen the mass of people lined up at the edge of the lake in which you live.  You would have witnessed the one-mile-and-a-half long line of humans in downtown Klamath Falls, Oregon.  Farmers, ranchers, and their supporters passed buckets of water, one-by-one, from Lake Ewauna to an irrigation canal on May 7, 2001.

Under historic conditions, the US Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) diverted water to fill the canal, which transported irrigation water to local, family farmers and ranchers who held contracts with the Bureau.  This year, however, had been severely dry, characterized by a light snow pack in the mountains and low lake and river levels that limited surface water in the high desert of southern Oregon and northern California.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which implements the Endangered Species Act, sanctioned the curtailment of water to farmers in order to protect two endangered desert fish—yes, I am talking about you.  The Klamath Tribes call you c’waam, non-tribal members refer to you as the Lost River sucker or mullet, and scientists describe you as Deltistes luxatus.  Furious with the decision that threatened their crops and income, agriculturalists and their fellow protestors argued that the fish should not come before their needs. To demonstrate their anger they staged the Klamath Bucket Brigade.  Others, such as local environmental organizations and the Klamath Tribes, contended that the threatened status of the fish indicated that the whole watershed and its many dependent species were in jeopardy and that some water needed to be reserved for fish and wildlife.

Assumptions about the stability of the water system had resulted in the over-allocation of water by the State of Oregon over the previous century.  Such episodes as the Bucket Brigade illuminate the need for sustainable water management and anticipatory planning that takes into account the complexity of social and natural systems, the inevitability of change, and the necessity of resilience and adaptation.

Through difficult discussions and uneasy negotiations, many water stakeholders within the Klamath River Watershed have come together through collaborative agreements to attempt to solve conflicts between human needs and ecological needs and constraints.  Their experiences demonstrate the intimate relationship between social justice and environmental sustainability.

From an aerial view, the 10.5 million-acre Klamath River Watershed looks as though it is full of water because of the many rivers, streams, lakes, and marshes throughout.  Yet, over the last twenty-five years, folks have learned the hard way that water resources are limited in the high desert climate, and they have spent more than a decade trying to solve the issue of water scarcity and over-allocation.

There were hints that changes in water management were coming.   In the early 1980s, people in the Upper Basin recognized that two endemic fish species were in jeopardy— the c’waam, or Lost River sucker, and the qupto, or shortnose sucker.  The Klamath Tribes closed their c’waam and qupto fishery in 1986; the State of Oregon closed the state fishery in 1987; and the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the c’waam and qupto as endangered in 1988.  These fish relied on the same water sources as the Klamath Project irrigators, agriculturalists who lease land and purchase water under contract from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) within a 210,000 acre region in southern Oregon and northern California.  In 1992 and 1994, the US Fish and Wildlife Service authorized flow reductions to the Klamath Project irrigators under authority of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in an effort to protect the two endangered fish.  The Bureau followed orders and reduced flows, but did not completely cut off irrigation water to the Klamath Project.

In 2001, a severe draught required the Bureau to restrict flows to the farmers again.  This time, the irrigators experienced a complete shut off.  The water crisis of 2001 demonstrated to citizens in the Upper Klamath River Watershed that water scarcity was a serious and recurring issue.  The agriculturalists and their ancestors had never experienced a growing season without water; the irrigation project had been traditionally run under the presumption that agriculture had priority over other water uses in the Upper Basin, except domestic (household) water use.  The curtailment of water in 2001 was a wake-up call.

Many farmers in the region, whether part of the Klamath Project or not, felt threatened.  How could the federal government prioritize fish over farmers?  Signs and bumper stickers appeared on fences and automobiles during the crisis that read “People Are More Important than Fish” and “Some Sucker Stole My Water.”  Such signs and bumper stickers are still prevalent in the 2010s.

Some people also pointed their fingers at the Klamath Tribes, who adamantly supported the ESA protections for the two fish and held treaty rights to fish for them.  Klamath oral traditions describe the Creator as placing the fish in Klamath Lake as a life source for the tribes, and through the annual C’waam Ceremony, the Klamaths practice their role as stewards of the fish.  Environmental issues are deeply social and cultural for all parties.  Sustainable water management needs to take into consideration complex social systems that include varying and conflicting values, interests, and needs.

Deep tensions can arise when natural resources are scarce or when access to resources changes after decades of uninterrupted use.  Natural resource conflicts like these can become violent and racially charged.  In December of 2001, about six months after the water crisis began, three men belonging to a nearby ranching community drove through the hub of the Klamath Tribes’ community, a town called Chiloquin, Oregon, and fired 12-gauge shotguns at signs and portable toilets, yelling “sucker lovers” and other phrases for more than an hour.  The three perpetrators did not represent the whole agricultural community, but they did signify the intensity of the conflict.

The tensions in the Upper Watershed were part of a much larger dispute over water management in the greater watershed that included more than 40 stakeholder groups.  Numerous federal and state agencies, private entities that included Pacificorp, which managed dams on the Klamath River, farmers and ranchers in the upper and lower watershed, four federally-recognized tribal nations and other unrecognized tribal communities, county governments, environmentalists, and many other groups had a stake in the water issue.

Environmental conditions and natural resource management challenges brought to the fore the many social justice issues at stake in the watershed.  The Klamath Tribes had not been able to fish for the c’waam or qupto since the mid-1980s when they and the State of Oregon closed the fishery.  If these species went extinct, the tribes would lose a major aspect of their culture and spirituality.  At the same time, the farmers who protested did so because the drought and water management decisions threatened their ability to provide for their families and to practice their agricultural way of life.

Events in 2002 and 2006 in the lower watershed raised more issues regarding environmental justice.  A massive fish kill in 2002 decimated migrating Chinook salmon, and coho salmon, which were placed on the endangered species list in 1997.  The Hoopa, Karuk, and Yurok tribes depend on salmon for sustenance; rather than catch salmon, they witnessed the devastating deaths of the fish.  This event also threatened commercial fishermen, who would later witness the closing of the salmon fishery along the southern Oregon and northern California coastline in 2006.

The many stakeholders in the expansive transboundary region had a massive challenge ahead of them.  Could they move past the anger, fear, and resentment, and work toward a collaborative watershed management plan?  Cooperation came, but it did so slowly and in small steps.  In 2004, interested parties met for a watershed-wide meeting, and they met again in 2006.  Participants engaged in conflict resolution activities, met in confidential meetings, shared information through outreach tables, panels, and lectures.  Staying at the same hotels and sharing the same restaurants and lounges after meetings provided opportunistic spaces for valuable informal conversations among stakeholders who normally would not co-mingle.  Government entities made efforts toward cooperation in 2004, when representatives of federal natural resource agencies and the California and Oregon state governments signed the Klamath River Watershed Coordination Agreement.

Despite prior and continuing tensions among stakeholders, they made headway. In 2010, forty-two stakeholder groups signed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA).  Together these agreements provided a watershed-scale management plan that includes the removal of four dams on the Klamath River to restore anadromous fish runs, guaranteed water for Klamath Project irrigators, and a forested land base for the Klamath Tribes’ economic development, among other plans.  These agreements required each stakeholder group to give up something in order to reach a more sustainable solution—one that would support the future of the diverse peoples of the watershed and the wildlife.  The KBRA and related KHSA, however, require congressional approval for implementation, and in 2014, the plan is still stalled in Congress. Stakeholders’ optimism about their collaborative resolution is thus tempered by the uncertainty posed by Congressional gridlock.

Another important event altered the trajectory of cooperative management in the watershed on 7 March 2013 and drew more stakeholders into the collaborative process.  In the mid-1970s, the State of Oregon began an adjudication process for water claims submitted prior to 1908—this included the Bureau of Reclamation’s claim for water that would be used by Klamath Project irrigators, the Klamath Tribes’ claim, and individual agriculturalists’ claims.  Water rights in the West are based on the “first in time, first in right” principle. The 2013 adjudication decision supported a 1983 federal court decision that upheld the Klamath Tribes’ water rights as dating to “time immemorial.”  This meant that within the upper watershed, the Klamaths had priority rights.  All other water claims submitted by non-tribal farmers and ranchers would be fulfilled after the state met the tribes’ water claims, if there was enough water.

In the spring of 2013, the Klamath Tribes filed a claim that required the Oregon water master to leave an adequate amount of water in the upper watershed tributaries for fish and other wildlife.  This resulted in an early irrigation curtailment to upper watershed irrigators; there simply was not enough water in the upper streams to meet the needs of the ranchers and farmers who held lower priority water rights.  These irrigators had chosen not to participate in the KBRA and KHSA planning.  At first, they protested the water curtailment, but many realized it would be more beneficial to join the collaborative discussions.

Since the state’s adjudication decision in 2013, the Klamath Tribes and the ranchers in the Upper Klamath River Watershed have come to an agreement.  On April 18, 2014, the Klamath Tribes agreed to share water with ranchers and ranchers agreed to support fish and wildlife restoration in the upper tributaries.  This positive step brought people in the Upper Klamath Basin closer to a sustainable solution in terms of social justice and environmental protection.  This agreement puts value on the Klamath Tribes’ and the ranching communities’ cultures and includes a mechanism for ecological restoration.

In many ways, this story is one of hope.  Stakeholders who faced what seemed like an intractable dispute unexpectedly forged alliances and a collaborative approach to water management that considered the needs and values of diverse stakeholders and non-human members of the watershed.  Rather than taking a top-down approach to management, the agreements reflect the long hours, days, and years that grassroots leaders devoted to finding solutions for water scarcity.  The agreements reflect a holistic approach to water management by considering the hydrology and ecology of the entire watershed as opposed to the historic piecemeal approach that allowed for non-integrated management of the various regions of the watershed.

This story, however, is a cautionary tale as well.  Not all stakeholders are on board with the agreements.  The democratic approach took more than a decade and is still in process; furthermore, it left opportunities for stakeholders to oppose alliances and the agreements throughout the collaborative process.  For example, some ranchers in the Upper Klamath River Watershed continue to oppose the KBRA, arguing that there are other more viable options, such as dredging Klamath Lake and keeping the Klamath River dams in place.  The Hoopa Tribe in Northern California will not sign the agreement because they do not want to risk losing any of their rights or sovereignty.  The Klamath Tribes’ own politics are in upheaval.  Their leaders spearheaded the negotiation process, but their constituency voted to support the KBRA on a narrow margin in 2012.  Some members worry that the agreement will strip their tribe of their sovereignty and limit the tribes’ future ability to reacquire their former reservation, which they lost through a federal termination process implemented by Congress in 1953.  Roadblocks in Congress further hinder the stakeholders from fully implementing the agreement.  In the spring of 2014, Democratic senators and representatives again introduced a bill that would formalize the KBRA and related agreements, but Republican and Tea Party interests, for the most part, continue to impede passage of the legislation.

Even if Congress never authorizes the agreements, the events in the Klamath River Watershed provide important lessons.  The stakeholders’ experiences demonstrate the fragile relationship between social justice and environmental sustainability.  Through hardships and cooperative efforts, they sought a more democratic approach to water management in which stakeholder groups would share the environmental burdens and amenities.  The tragic events required the citizens to recognize the complexity of the social and environmental systems in the watershed.  While facing unexpected events that turned their lives upside down, the diverse group of stakeholders forged a path toward a more sustainable future with the understanding their world is unpredictable and evolving.

Cite this Page

Monika Bilka, “From Conflict to Collaboration on the Klamath River,” Tales of Hope and Caution in Environmental Justice, accessed [time_date], https:/​/​hfe-observatories.​org/​stories/from-conflict-to-collaboration-on-the-klamath-river/.​

Bibliographic Entries