These days you can stand by a lava bed in northern California near the Oregon border and see history repeating itself, with a
The lava bed’s place in history goes back to the winter of 1873 when a maze of volcanic tubes and caves there held the nation’s
attention for several months. The maze was the natural fort of a little band of Modoc Indians, about 50 warriors plus women and
children, led by a chief named Kientpoos (Captain Jack to local settlers). The once free-roaming Modocs had left a reservation
in southern Oregon where they were sent after clashes with settlers and other relative newcomers. The Modocs wanted their
own reservation. They were fighting for this semblance of their way of life against a larger force of U.S. Army regulars and
volunteers. The lava bed site became known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold.
Today in the region there’s another struggle. But this time it’s farmers, some of them homesteaders and the children and grandchildren of homesteaders, who are under siege—or at least feel that way. Others, including conservation groups, commercial fishermen and Native American tribes, see the situation differently.
Most Oregonians know something about the problem in the Klamath River Basin. It’s been in the national news again and again. But for those who haven’t followed the details, geography is a good place to start explaining what’s happening, and why Oregon State University and the University of California have launched a project they hope will help all the residents of the area build a future that’s desirable and sustainable.
The Klamath Basin has been described as "where the Cascade Mountains meet the high desert." It stretches about 220 miles, from a point northeast of the town of Chemult in southern Oregon near Crater Lake to a point southwest of Redding, California. Almost 160 miles at its widest, the basin includes forests, grasslands and rich bottomland.
From ridges near Captain Jack’s Stronghold, about 12 miles south of the Oregon border, you can see elements of the modern-day struggle in several directions. The most obvious are to the north in the Upper Klamath Basin. There are Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake, the shallow centerpieces of two of several national wildlife refuges in the basin. They’re surrounded by patchworks of agricultural fields. There’s the farming community of Tulelake, California, and west of that Clear Lake
The lava bed site where Modoc Indians held off the Army for months in 1873. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
Other elements of the struggle lie further toward, and into, Oregon: streams, diversion dams, irrigation canals, the rural Oregon
communities of Merrill and Malin, Gerber Reservoir, the bustling city of Klamath Falls, and, just beyond that, the arid basin’s most eye-catching cache of H2O: Upper Klamath Lake. About 25 miles long, it’s the largest body of water in Oregon.
Several sparkling streams funnel water into the relatively shallow lake (seven feet deep, on average). The Klamath River flows out of it to the southwest, gliding and raging, depending on the landscape, until it disappears into the Pacific Ocean south of Crescent City, California.
The human population has been increasing in the Klamath Basin since explorers showed up in the 19th century. The first half of the 20th century, when increased productivity was on the minds of many Americans, brought more change.
Under the Reclamation Act of 1902, California and Oregon ceded almost 400,000 acres of marshlands to the federal government so the acreage, in the Upper Klamath Basin, could be drained and used for agricultural homesteading. A lot of it was. Veterans of World War I and World War II participated in much-publicized, lottery-type drawings.
Many veterans lucky enough to win a homestead, and their young families, lived in tents, crude trailers or pieces of old military
barracks as they started farming. The Klamath Project, authorized in 1905 and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, helped them produce crops.
Over decades, the project contributed to the construction of an irrigation system that includes 18 canals stretching a total of 185
miles, two reservoirs (also used for flood control), diversion dams, a tunnel that delivers water through a ridge that used to block water flow, and stations that pump water out of low areas in the basin, called sumps.
This helped farmers and ranchers grow forages, field crops such as wheat and barley, and high-value row crops such as potatoes, onions, strawberries and mint. Agriculture became a mainstay in the upper basin, like logging throughout the region and fishing where the Klamath River meets the ocean. But as the century wound to an end, the strategies used to irrigate, control flooding and generate power became increasingly controversial.
In 1988, two year-round basin residents, the short-nosed sucker and the Lost River sucker, which live in Upper Klamath Lake and nearby waters, were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 1997, coho salmon that migrate part-way up the Klamath River from the ocean, until dams block their passage, also were listed.
Hardly anyone wished the fish any harm, but farmers wanted water for their crops. Commercial fishermen on the coast and Native Americans in the Lower Klamath Basin wanted water in the Klamath River for the coho salmon. The Klamath Tribes in the upper basin wanted water in Upper Klamath Lake and elsewhere for the suckers (historically, a sacred food source for the tribes).
Women with sucker fish, circa 1905. Historically, such fish were an important food for Native Americans in the Klamath Basin. Today threatened suckers are at the center of a water allocation controversy. In 2001, fish took priority over farming in a federal irrigation project.
The Bureau of Reclamation studied "biological opinions" developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency responsible for the endangered suckers, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, responsible for the endangered coho salmon. Then the Bureau of Reclamation started developing yearly plans for the Klamath Project. These included how high Upper Klamath Lake had to stay in the summer to protect the suckers, and how much water had to be released into the Klamath River in the summer to help coho salmon downstream.
Last spring a federal decision, during one of the worst droughts in recorded history in the Klamath Basin, elevated this situation into what the Washington Post called the United States’ "most intense environmental battle" since the spotted owl.
It started in April when the Bureau of Reclamation announced there would be no water from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation, based on an Endangered Species Act requirement for erring on the side of caution in protecting the fish.
During other droughts in the 1990s irrigation water had been reduced. But this was zero. It meant severely reduced, or in some
cases no, crops for about a thousand families that farmed some 170,000 acres within the Klamath Project, unless they had wells or some other source of water. Most didn’t (farmers in other parts of the project received water from reservoirs).
There were pro-farmer protests and emotional, though nonviolent, meetings with government officials. Locks were cut to let the
water flow, at least for a short time. Eventually, a mile-long "bucket brigade" of men, women and children dumped water from Lake Ewauna, just below Upper Klamath Lake, into the irrigation canal. But many environmentalists, Native Americans, commercial fisherman downstream and others felt the water decision was the correct one.
Lawsuits and rulings by judges started flying around like the ducks and other birds that give the Klamath Basin the largest population of migratory waterfowl in the country, plus an associated predator, the threatened bald eagle.
Local, state and national government leaders searched for solutions. So did citizen groups. In July a decision by the federal
Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, released some irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake. But farmers said it was too little—and too late.
Through it all, there was debate over the "science" underpinning the decision to cut off irrigation water. What did research really
indicate the fish need? Much of this focused on the agency’s biological opinions. Various interest groups shared their scientific
interpretations with the public. They complained about biased research and "junk science."
Discussion focuses on other points, too. For example: The impact of irrigation, and of cutting off irrigation, on other wildlife in
the basin. The Endangered Species Act versus human needs. Historical water rights under the legal systems of Oregon and California. Tribal rights to water. The pros and cons of the federal government or private conservation groups "buying out" farmers in the upper basin to protect wild creatures (some people there farm next to public wildlife refuges and some farmers lease land within refuges).
Struggles in the Klamath Basin: A May 2001 "bucket brigade" on Main Street, Klamath Falls, protesting the federal irrigation water cutoff. Photo: Gary Thain, Klamath Falls Herald and News
Ron Hathaway of the OSU Extension Service's Klamath County office stands above a frozen Upper Klamath Lake. He's helping with a university assessment of economic, environmental and social issues tied to water allocation in the Klamath Project. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
In February, 2002, there were more twists.
The Bureau of Reclamation issued an irrigation plan for the Klamath Project for the new year. This gave farmers access to more water. But it was only a proposal. Federal agencies looking out for the suckers and coho salmon are reviewing it.
Then an independent scientific team, assembled by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the Secretary of the Interior, released the first draft of a report on the situation (another, more comprehensive report is due in about a year). It wasn’t a ruling. Just an interpretation of the available science, notes Richard Adams, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at OSU who is on the scientific review team.
A key observation was that the decision to withhold all irrigation water did not seem justified. The team didn’t say more water in
Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River in the summer wouldn’t help the fish. It said there wasn’t enough scientific information to come to that conclusion and theorized that the quality of the water going into the lake and the river, influenced by human activities throughout the basin, might be a more important factor in the fishes’ health.
The need for more information the National Academy of Sciences team singled out is where OSU and the University of California come back into this story.
For many decades, the two universities have gathered information in the Klamath Basin. Branch agricultural experiment stations and county extension offices, for example, have collected information related to farming and ranching. From time to time, university scientists in fields such as biology and engineering have conducted research there (OSU fisheries biologist Doug Markle and his students have studied the basin’s endangered suckers since the late 1980s).
Also, in recent years educators in OSU’s Klamath County Extension Office have spent an increasing amount of their working on "public issues," notes Ron Hathaway, chair of the office. They’ve invited professors from the Corvallis campus to help them offer "systems learning" workshops, where residents of watersheds and other ecologically discrete areas try to identify common objectives.
As tension peaked in the spring of 2001, the universities took a new approach.
"Ron [Hathaway] was calling me regularly. We’d lament over the situation down there and consider ways we could help," said Bill Braunworth, assistant leader of OSU’s Extension agriculture program.
"I think I was the one who suggested some kind of multidisciplinary assessment," said Braunworth. "I’d been involved in that sort of thing when I was working in Africa. You know, what would be the impacts of various courses of action? That sort of information seemed to be missing. I started calling people in various departments, person after person after person who might be able to contribute."
A severely reduced allocation of irrigation water in much of the Klamath Project, announced in April, 2001, sent panic through farmers like Ross Fleming, a Klamath Falls potato grower. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
Soon, about 20 faculty members affiliated with the extension services and agricultural experiment stations of OSU and the
University of California at Davis were headed for the Upper Klamath Basin. By the time the group left the basin a couple of days later, they had the rough outline of an assessment of the potential impacts of the federal environmental decisions.
The group set a whirlwind release date, for such a report, of December 2001.
The team divided into three major study groups—natural resources, community and economics—and established some boundaries, because of the short timeline: The report would look at the impacts of 2001 decisions only, be limited to the Klamath Project in the Upper Klamath Basin, and depend almost exclusively on existing data.
As team members, who were tackling the work along with their regular assignments, pored over available scientific literature and
revisited the basin with graduate students and other collaborators, the need for something more than a description of potential impacts emerged: There seemed to be a need to assemble available data, to pinpoint missing data, to point out unanswered research questions and, to the extent possible with what was available, to identify alternative strategies for dealing with challenges in the basin.
Various members interviewed residents of the Upper Klamath Basin, but they saw a need to work with local residents in another way. They postponed the report’s release until late March, posted a first draft on the Internet and scheduled a public meeting for December 19 in Klamath Falls. The hope was that local residents and others would ask questions, offer observations and discuss the report’s chapters with the authors, in small groups.
The chapters taking shape focused on topics such as water resources in the basin; instream flows and coho salmon; the management of Upper Klamath Lake and the biology of the short nosed and Lost River suckers; other wildlife species in the basin such as bald eagles, waterfowl and mule deer; soils; economics in the upper basin; community issues; public policies; water law; and alternative farming and water management strategies.
On December 19, a cold, windy day, about 120 people filled much of a downstairs auditorium in the Klamath Extension Office and went over the report with the team. The team also invited written input from the public, with the deadline for that several weeks later.
Klamath Falls, Oregon, on a snowy night. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
Many of the comments and questions from individual citizens, interest groups, institutions and public agencies were constructive, but the report was criticized in the media, on Web sites and in other public forums by individuals and organizations with seemingly competing interests. Perhaps, some members of the team speculated, this meant the report draft was independent and balanced?
Some people seemed to confuse the university assessment with often-contentious governmental "environmental impact study" (EIS) processes, where interest groups often are intent on staking out legal positions. Still, Tom Gallagher, an organizational development specialist with the OSU Extension Service who is helping coordinate the entire assessment project, was encouraged.
"Having our science team and the public engaged in a presentation and review over such a major topic was novel and innovative in my university experience," said Gallagher. "As one member of the public commented, ‘We don’t like all of your conclusions but we do appreciate that you came to Klamath Falls and were available to talk with us, as people.’
"The comments and questions tell us that our modest effort should be followed by a much more comprehensive study," said Gallagher. "In particular, the geographic area needs to be expanded to include at least the entire watershed to the ocean. The time frame needs to be broader, reaching across the decades to understand the history of change. And a specific, fundamental problem is the lack of certain information about the natural systems.
"The research needed to understand the Klamath systems will not be cheap, or quick," he added. "However, it can be good. Our study generated excellent comments and questions, but there was only one opportunity for response and revision. In my opinion, a much higher level of scientists/public interaction, including in data collection and analysis, could do a lot to bring the many interested participants together. We hope that in the future the process will involve earlier and more frequent reviews—managed more in the spirit of a dialogue for mutual education."
Mutual education is one thing the OSU assessment report’s authors, who are from disciplines such as biology, economics, agronomy and sociology, are getting. They are reviewing each other’s chapters.
"In some ways it’s been frustrating. But it’s also been very positive," said Bill Braunworth. "We’ve had a fish and wildlife
person looking at an agronomist’s view of water, and vice versa. I think there’s been enormous cross-disciplinary learning happening, a way of getting at the big picture. This could spill over into how the university gathers information that will help the public make decisions about other issues that are going to arise in Oregon."
But for now, the focus is on the Klamath Basin, where the situation seems to evolve almost weekly with new water-and fish-related twists and turns.
In 1873, Captain Jack eventually surrendered and was tried and hung for shooting a general. The Army took most of his band to a reservation in Oklahoma—one group prevailed over another. The release of the university assessment report this spring (see the sidebar on page 28 to find out how to get a copy) will be a step, though perhaps a modest one, toward helping the residents of the Klamath Basin find a way to survive, even thrive, together.