Photo: A dam on the Klamath River.

Klamath River Dam

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Photograph by David McLain, National Geographic

Greg Addington, Executive Director, Klamath Water Users Association

Steve Rothert, Director, California Office of American Rivers

Craig Tucker, Klamath Coordinator, Karuk Tribe

It’s not easy to save a river—especially when those charged with forging the rescue plan are long-time adversaries. This was our task on the Klamath River.

The Klamath is a unique river that winds hundreds of miles through the high desert of Oregon and into the forests of northern California. It historically supported an outstanding abundance of fish and wildlife, including the third largest salmon run on the West Coast of the United States.

Karuk, Klamath, and Yurok people have lived along the banks of the Klamath since time immemorial. Today the river is also home to diverse agricultural and commercial fishing communities. PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy, operates five dams on the river, two in Oregon and three in California.

Since the first dam was constructed in 1918, salmon and steelhead have been prevented from reaching more than 560 kilometers (350 miles) of spawning and rearing habitat in the Klamath’s upper basin. Runs of salmon have steadily declined to the point that Coho salmon have been added to the endangered species list, and other runs have been lost altogether.

In addition, the reservoirs behind the dams host massive blooms of toxic algae, creating a health risk for fish and people alike.

These dwindling resources on the Klamath have heightened the bitter conflicts that have historically taken place among the tribal, fishing, and agricultural communities. But in recent decades, three events brought the crisis to a head—events that ultimately put an end to the conflict and culminated in a surprising collaboration.

In 2001, for the first time in the nearly 100-year history of the Klamath Irrigation Project, water was shut off to the farmers and ranchers who receive water from the project in an effort to protect Coho salmon and sucker fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. This left crops to wither and die in the fields and sparked protests and litigation from farm families.

Then in 2002, poor water conditions killed more than 60,000 returning adult salmon—dead fish lined the lower Klamath’s banks for miles. In 2006, low returns of Klamath salmon led to the near total shutdown of the West Coast salmon fishery, leaving thousands of family fishers without a way to make a living.

In the midst of this ongoing crisis, the Klamath dams' operating license expired, requiring PacifiCorp to go through the process of securing a new license. The tribes, fishers, and farmers suffering from the steep decline in fish populations realized they could take advantage of the opportunity to craft a broader settlement that balanced water use, restored habitat, and put Klamath fisheries on the road to recovery—and end the decades of fighting.

And so these traditional adversaries gathered around a table, unsure of exactly where the process would lead. We didn’t trust each other. We resented each other. There were legal and political obstacles to overcome.

But over time, we came to better understand one another’s perspectives and concerns. We sought solutions that would allow for restoration of the basin’s ecosystem in a manner that allowed local economies to flourish as well. Negotiations lasted for hours, days, years. Debates became heated, resulting in individuals making table-pounding proclamations, offering tearful pleas and storming out of rooms. The high stakes of the negotiations also created extraordinary moments of magnanimity, brilliance, and creativity.

A crucial turning point came in 2007 when, for the first time, farmers, fishers and tribes realized they shared a common future. If the Klamath’s rural communities were to survive, they had to work together. This translated into a joint commitment to restore the Klamath River.

The countless hours of effort on the part of dozens of negotiators culminated in a major gathering in Salem, Oregon, in February 2010 to celebrate the signing of two Klamath settlement agreements—one addressing the hydropower dams and the other addressing water management in the basin. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, flanked by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, reprised his “Terminator” role saying, “Hasta la vista, Klamath dams!”

The settlement agreements call for the world’s largest dam removal and river restoration effort. The agreements strike a delicate balance between the needs of fisheries and agriculture. Still, the plan must go through environmental reviews, and Congressional legislation is needed to implement the plan. But the coalition is already collaborating on the legislative effort.

The process wasn’t easy, and hurdles still remain, but we are proud of the progress we have made, and we believe our experience is proof that warring interests can find common ground. We hope the Klamath can serve as an inspiration for other river communities facing similar conflicts.

Greg Addington is executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Since joining KWUA, Greg has worked hard to build non-traditional coalitions to enhance the ability of irrigators to stay viable in changing political climates. He works on a variety of political issues related to water delivery and power needs for agriculture. Greg graduated from the University of Idaho in 1993 with a degree in agricultural economics. Prior to joining KWUA, Greg worked nine years for the Oregon Farm Bureau. As Associate Director of Governmental Affairs for the Bureau, in Salem, he was responsible for a variety of natural resource policy related issues.

Steve Rothert has served as director of American Rivers' California Regional Office since 2002. In addition to overseeing office operations, he manages American Rivers' programs in California related to hydropower reform, anadromous fish restoration, dam removal, climate change, and water supply. Prior to joining American Rivers, Rothert directed the Southern Africa Program for International Rivers Network based in Botswana, was director of the national Hydropower Reform Coalition, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the fisheries program in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

Craig Tucker, Ph.D., is Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe in Happy Camp, California.  He received his bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Clemson University in 1993 and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1999 before turning to environmental activism.  He learned grassroots organizing from Green Corps, a specialized graduate school for environmental organizers, and has worked as Outreach Director for Friends of the River, a California river conservation organization.


More Resources:

American Rivers

Klamath Water Users Association

Karuk Tribe

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