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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Klamath River

Air Date: Week of

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The Klamath Basin on the Oregon/California border is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including bald eagles and salmon. It’s also home to hundreds of farming families encouraged by the government to settle in the area at the start of last century. But now, with the Klamath Basin in the middle of the worst drought in 100 years, the government decided for the first time to limit water rights for farmers. Clay Scott reports.


TOOMEY: One hundred years ago, the Klamath Basin comprised thousands of acres of wetlands along the Oregon-California border. The wetlands drained into the Klamath River, which flowed for 200 miles into the Pacific Ocean. The river was a crucial spawning habitat for salmon and other fish. But all that changed in 1912, when the Bureau of Reclamation completed an ambitious project: draining the marshes and converting them to farmland--and damming the Klamath River, diverting the water for agriculture.

They called it the Klamath Reclamation Project, and the lure of free land and cheap irrigation water brought hundreds of homesteaders. But water diverted for farms meant reduced flows downstream, and that affected both the salmon and the people who depended on them. Still, the needs of agriculture always came first, until this year.

With the Klamath Basin in the middle of the worst drought in a century, the Bureau of Reclamation ruled for the first time that fish will come before farmers. Clay Scott has our story.

SCOTT: A single irrigation sprinkler waters a field of onions, but the water comes from one of only a handful of wells here in the Klamath Basin, and these 40 acres of lush and vivid green stand in sharp contrast to miles of brown. At the height of the planting season here, field after field stands fallow, covered in sparse weeds, the dusty topsoil shifting with every gust of wind. The irrigation canals that normally supply the basin with water are dry. Hundreds of small farmers here are facing a season without water.

BOLESTA: We are always promised with some water. We can get by with less water, but we can't get by with no water.

SCOTT: Eleanor Bolesta has farmed near Tule Lake, California, since 1947, when she was the first woman ever to be granted a homestead by the Bureau of Reclamation.

BOLESTA: I was quite young, I was 22, 23 I think, when I won the homestead, and it was like I'd been given a chance at a future. It was very, very wonderful to win the homestead.

SCOTT: A photograph of Eleanor taken the year she arrived, shows her riding a tractor, in a field of barley. She's wearing khakis and a workshirt, long hair blowing in the wind, a look of determination on her face. Farming here was never easy, she says. At 4000 feet elevation, the growing season is short and summer frost is a constant worry. But she and other farmers survived, she says, because they knew they could count on at least some water. Not this year. The Klamath Basin is suffering the worst drought in memory, and the Bureau of Reclamation has cut off irrigation water.

BOLESTA: And I'm very angry, because they invited us here to become homesteaders, they promised us water, and that's been taken away, and so it will never be the same, and our whole future is jeopardized by it.

SCOTT: Eleanor pulls out a faded government document and points to the signature at the bottom: Harry S. Truman. It's the patent to her homestead and it grants her and her heirs water from the Klamath Reclamation project, forever. She came here in the strength of that pledge, but this year, for the first time ever, the water that would normally be diverted to irrigation will instead flow into the Klamath River. A federal judge upheld the ruling, saying the water was needed downstream, to help the threatened Coho salmon and other species. To Eleanor, the plight of fish in a far-off river is something abstract. She knows only that, without water, the land she invested her life in is all but worthless.

BOLESTA: It never can be the same again, or the value of our property and the value of what we've worked for all our lives. If you have been raised on a farm, land is security. I feel very strongly about my farm.

SCOTT: Some 200 miles downstream, the Klamath River flows through stands of tedwood and Douglas fir, and empties into the Pacific Ocean in California's northwest corner. A narrow strip of land straddles the last 40 miles of the river's course. This is the Yurok Indian Reservation. In 1855 the tribe gave up its claim to millions of acres in return for a government promise of a permanent home along the Klamath. Glen More is Yurok Tribal Elder.

MORE: We lost part of our river. We was a rich, a very wealthy tribe one time. A wealthy place to live. And now, we don't have no resources left.

SCOTT: One resource the Yurok's do still have is this stretch of the Klamath River and the fish that run up it: Searun cutthroats and steel heads, sturgeon and Pacific lamprey. Above all, it is the salmon that has always been crucial to the Yurok way of life.

(More sings tribal song, "Brush Dance")

SCOTT: Glenn Moore sings a traditional Yurok brush dance song. Many of the tribe's ceremonies and rituals give thanks for the river and pray for an abundance of fish. But with destruction of spawning habitat and water diverted to agriculture upstream, the salmon runs have been reduced to a fraction of what they once were. Glenn remembers a time when they were still plentiful.

MORE: Some of the best smoked fish that I ever ate were smoked right along the river, and I just made a little brush house, out of pepperwood, and that built just enough fire to keep the flies away, and then they just slowly dried it. And it was some real good salmon, jerked that way, and it kept a long time.

SCOTT: A lot has changed since the days when Glen Moore navigated the Klamath in a dug-out canoe of hollowed Redwood. Today, Yurok fishermen use aluminum boats with outboard motors. They refrigerate the salmon as well as smoking it. And their gill nets are made of nylon mono-filament instead of twisted plant fiber. But the river is still at the center of their lives.

WILSON: It means everything, it means our life. It's our life. That's what--we live here, this river. If this river wasn't here, we wouldn't be here.

SCOTT: Tommy Wilson learned to fish the Klamath from tribal elders like Glen Moore. Today, both men are out in Tommy's boat. At the confluence of the Klamath and the Trinity Rivers the banks are thick with red alder and madrone, huckleberry and salmonberry. For generations, this has been the traditional fishing hole of Tommy Wilson's family. Are these your nets here?

WILSON: Yeah, this is my home. This is a regular gill net, and about a 45, 50 foot gill net.

SCOTT: Hand over hand, Tommy pulls up the net. There we go.

WILSON: Nice Chinook fish.

SCOTT: Is that a big one?

WILSON: No. This is just a little guy, it'll probably go about twelve…twelve, thirteen pounds.

SCOTT: That's it for the afternoon's take: a single Chinook salmon. It's a female, a hatchery fish, Tommy explains, pointing out the clipped adipose fin. Nearly all the salmon he nets are hatchery raised, he says. Like many Yurok fishermen, he feels the native salmon have trouble spawning because too much water is being diverted to farms upstream.

WILSON: I've known people in the headwaters. They need to live, too. But they don't need to take our water and just throw it away foolishly. They could grow crops that need less water.

SCOTT: Back in Tule Lake, Keith Buckingham is doing his best this year to grow crops that need no water. Here he plants a field in barley--not to make a profit, he says, but merely in the hopes of keeping the topsoil from blowing away. You're still planting and tilling and whatnot. But do you feel like you're going through the motions, under the circumstances?

BUCKINGHAM: Exactly so. It seems to be little point to the endeavor here but it's the formalities we go through.

SCOTT: Do you feel like you're still farming?

BUCKINGHAM: Without much enthusiasm. I have no planter's fever this year.

SCOTT: Keith Buckingham inherited the farm from his father who, like Eleanor Bolesta, won his homestead after World War II. In 1954 the elder Buckingham was profiled in a Collier's magazine article with the optimistic title, "Sod Busting Pays Off." But he was quoted as saying that his one goal was to get out of debt. Nearly 50 years later, his son Keith is still trying to achieve that goal.

BUCKINGHAM: With the loss of water, it has just changed the parameters completely. You're looking in the past at what crops can I plant, what shows the best avenue for profit? And at this point it's just, how can I generate any revenue to try to hold this operation together?

SCOTT: Keith Buckingham is not alone. Many farmers here, perhaps most, are deeply in debt. This year's water cut-off was a severe blow to an already struggling community, and Keith predicts more cut-offs in the future. One solution being proposed is the acquisition of Klamath Basin farmland by the federal government. This would take the land out of irrigation, reduce the demand on the water, and give willing sellers a chance to get on their feet financially. If the government does find the money for such a project, Keith says he and others like him would jump at the chance.

BUCKINGHAM: We've been through enough trying and economic times where we were on the verge of losing the operation, that it has lost the emotional impact that it had at one time. When you have your toes at the edge of the cliff, it changes your perspective on survival.

SCOTT: Keith Buckingham and the other Klamath Basin farmers have survived for decades, but the water that enabled them to farm here no longer seems limitless. Many farmers feel abandoned, betrayed by a government that brought them here long ago and promised them water forever. Others, like Keith, admit values about the use of water are shifting and that farmers aren't the only ones with the claim to the resource. The challenge facing them now is how to survive that transition. For Living on Earth, I'm Clay Scott, in the Klamath Basin.



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