Drought leads to water shut-off in Southern Oregon

2 years 11 months 2 weeks ago Friday, June 11 2021 Jun 11, 2021 June 11, 2021 6:13 AM June 11, 2021 in News
Source: CNN
Generic image of parched desert land.

As a historic drought began to impact the northwest region of the U.S., in May the government shut down the water supply from the Upper Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border in hopes of protecting a nearly extinct native fish species, CNN reports. 

But when this occurred, local farmers were cut off from water they'd used for decades.

The drought has "definitely made it a lot harder for us to get by year after year, and it's making an already tight margin a lot tighter," one fourth-generation farmer, told CNN. "For all of us, we've got families, employees, customers -- people we have to figure out how to take care of."

This year, as the Klamath Basin dried up, an environmental crisis evolved into a water war that put local farmers at odds with local Native American tribes, government agencies and conservationists.

According to CNN, over a century ago, the federal Klamath Project redrew the basin's landscape, draining lakes and redirecting rivers to build a farming community that now supply horseradish, wheat, beets and even potatoes for Frito-Lay chips.

Since then the project became a source of controversy because two native fish species were listed as endangered in the 1980s.

Federal water officials have been trying to strike a balance between providing much-needed water to local farmers and leaving enough to protect a species of rare fish that are pivitol to the cultural practices of native Klamath Tribes.

When the drought began this year, federal officials decided to shutter a headgate that has delivered water to communities around the basin since 1907.

But the shutdown upended agricultural practices, burdened the community, and added financial woes to farming families.

Some of these farmers are now threatening to take matters into their own hands, CNN reports.

In April, Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll purchased property next to the irrigation canal headgate in Klamath Falls and set up a large red and white tent that they filled with American flags and signs that say things like, "Stop Rural Cleansing" and "Help Amend the Endangered Species Act."

"We're here because we're trying to stand up for our private property," Nielsen told CNN. "We've been trying to be nice, but we're getting to the end of the rope. You just go in there and pull the bulkheads and open the headgates."

"We're going to do it peacefully," he said, "unless the federal government turns on us like they usually do."

The Upper Klamath Lake is where two very rare native suckerfish can be found, the C'waam and Koptu. These fish are considered sacred to southern Oregon's Klamath Tribes, which are made up of the Klamath, Modoc and Yahookskin band of Northern Paiute Indians.

However, CNN says biologists and the tribal communities around the Upper Klamath Lake feel that warming temperatures and environmental degradation have caused water levels to drop to the bare minimum needed to keep the fish alive.

Some scientists say the Klamath Project created hazardous conditions for the fish, as phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from nearby farms fueled enormous algal blooms, which sucked oxygen out of the water.

The impact is taking an emotional and cultural toll on Native Americans in the basin, CNN reports.

The news outlet goes on to say that the C'waam fish, for example, is key to the tribe's creation story and Indigenous practices, and the tribe now fears the extinction of the species is just around the corner.

So, in 1986, the tribe made the tough decision to halt their hunting and fishing in hopes of the species' recovery.

"We're here today because those fish were here," Don Gentry, the chairman of the Klamath Tribes told CNN. "The C'waam creation story says, 'if those fish die, the people die.'"

As the drought worsens, the one thing everyone involved seem to agree on is that the current way of managing the water crisis is not working.

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