How southern Oregon’s water crisis is threatening some California tribes

Matt Brannon
Redding Record Searchlight

Unusually dry conditions in southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin are contributing to a massive fish kill in California’s Klamath River, tribal fishing officials say. 

The levels of drought have already led to friction between water authorities and one group of Oregon farmers who are threatening a standoff with the government over a lack of water allocations for irrigation from the Upper Klamath Lake.

Further south, California tribes are seeing devastating numbers of young salmon dead and infected with parasites, which would typically be mitigated by officials flushing extra water down the Klamath River, said Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant for the Karuk Tribe.

With the lack of available water from Upper Klamath Lake this year, officials decided against those “flushing flows” — leading to higher numbers of infected salmon, Tucker said.

Some small fishing families on the California coast are going out of business because they can’t make a living catching salmon anymore, he said.

But the financial shortfalls are only part of the cost.

Buster Attebery, chairman of the Karuk Tribe, on Friday, June 4, 2021 visits the confluence of the Klamath River and Indian Creek in the town of Happy Camp, California, where the tribe has its headquarters.

“For native people, it transcends economics,” Tucker said. “(For) the Karuk (and) Yurok people, salmon is a cornerstone of their culture. This fish has fed these people for literally millennia. Their religious practices often revolve around the return of salmon.” 

Citing insufficiency in the water supply, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced in mid-May that it would not open a major canal that carries water out of Upper Klamath Lake to farmers and brings flushing flows beneficial to salmon to the Klamath River. 

In late May, the Karuk Tribe declared a state of emergency in response to record low precipitation in the Klamath Basin. 

“(The Bureau of Reclamation’s) decision to not provide flushing flows is allowing a massive juvenile fish kill to take place,” the tribe announced. “Over 95% of sampled fish are infected. We have to keep as much water in the river as possible to allow some fish to survive.” 

Dry conditions worse than usual

Droughts themselves are not unusual for the Klamath Basin — officials have made drought declarations eight of the last 12 years, according to the Karuk Tribe. But 2021’s drought conditions stand out for their severity. 

A spokesperson for the Oregon Water Resources Department said 2021 has been a unique and "particularly challenging" year.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows much of the basin is experiencing either "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, the two most severe categories of drought. Department policy manager Racquel Rancier said exceptional drought in the basin is historically "very uncommon."

A farmer works in a field north of Klamath Fall on the east shore of Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon on Friday, June 4, 2021.

“As a result, there is insufficient water supplies to meet all of the needs for water in the basin,” Rancier said. 

At this point, non-drought years feel like an anomaly to some.

Tucker said calling it a drought suggests people can just hang tight and wait for next year. But some fear the drier conditions are simply a new normal. 

How less water leads to sick fish

So how do those dry conditions affect the salmon population in the Klamath River? Tucker said juvenile salmon are getting sick from a parasite, Ceratonova Shasta, that hops from worms to fish through spores. 

“They infect fish, fish die, more spores pop out,” Tucker said. 

In previous centuries, natural fluctuations of the river’s current would help sweep some of the danger away. But the addition of some dams has created a more consistent flow that parasites thrive in, Tucker said.

In recent years, the Bureau of Reclamation’s flushing flows would typically mitigate that damage. 

Kenneth Brink, who is with the Karuk Fisheries, sorts dead juvenile fish found at a survey location on the Klamath River near Happy Camp, California.

Karuk Tribe Chairman Buster Attebery said the construction of the dams, which are now scheduled to be removed, blocked off about 350 miles of spawning grounds for salmon. 

Attebery said he'd like to see more serious consultation with tribes when government officials make decisions affecting tribal lands. He said it often feels like they’re just checking a box to say they consulted and then continue to do what they planned to do anyway, which could disrupt ecosystems. 

“Why would you not pay attention to thousands of years of best practice?” Attebery said. 

Searching for solutions

Further west in California, the Yurok tribe is seeing similar results from the lack of flushing flows. Barry McCovey Jr., fisheries department director for the Karuk Tribe, said in a Friday sample his staff found the highest number of dead fish so far this year. 

“Those fish won’t survive to make it out to the ocean, so they won’t be coming back in three years to feed our people,” McCovey said. 

McCovey said government mismanagement from previous years — what he described as officials giving irrigators too much water last year — combined with the hotter, drier conditions this year has helped create a fish kill that’s “off the charts.” 

The intake to A Canal in Klamath Falls, Oregon, has been closed by the Bureau of Reclamation over the objections of area farmers down stream.

McCovey said even before 2021, the presence of the dams and a changing climate has hurt the salmon population in the Klamath River and its branches. He said it’s a complex problem to solve that’s going to take creativity and people working together. 

Tucker echoed that sentiment, saying he’s been trying to meet with tribes, irrigators, agencies and environmental groups to navigate a complicated system that deals with water rights laws in two states. 

“We’re not going to solve this problem with a militant standoff,” he said. “We have to have some kind of durable solution.”

Matt Brannon covers politics, the criminal justice system and breaking news for the Record Searchlight. Follow him on Twitter @MattBrannon_RS. Support local coverage and keep up with the North State for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today