The West Can End the Water Wars Now

Far-right radicals in Southern Oregon are threatening to bust open an irrigation canal. Instead, the region could be a model for managing watersheds in a warmer world.

A dam in Oregon's Klamath Basin
Gillian Flaccus / AP

In my experience, out here in the West, people are, by and large, aggrieved. This is not entirely their fault. Federal and state governments have made lots of promises to people in the West, or to their parents or grandparents. Some people were promised that their land would not be taken, while other people were promised free land. Some were told that they could withdraw water from this or that lake or river every year until the end of time, others that their right to hunt or fish on their territory would never be infringed.

But the natural abundance those promises were based on has been squandered by generations of mismanagement. In the Klamath Basin, in Southern Oregon and Northern California, where I live, Klamath tribal members haven’t been able to exercise their “exclusive right of taking fish in the streams and lakes,” as protected in a 1864 treaty, for decades, because the fish keep dying. The water quality is just that poor now. And as the climate changes, water is no longer predictably available when it is needed most.

This year has been particularly bad. Most of the basin is experiencing “extreme drought,” and farmers and ranchers who usually irrigate their crops and pastures with water from Upper Klamath Lake have been told that they will receive no water at all this year, for the first time since 1907. Ranchers are scrambling to feed their cattle; potatoes aren’t being planted.

A handful of far-right agitators connected with the infamous anti-government cowboy Ammon Bundy spent $30,000 to buy a plot of land adjacent to the closed headgates of the main irrigation canal, and they are publicly threatening to force them open. The gates are controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation and blocked with bulkheads. Heavy machinery would be required to move them. The farmers Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen are giving interviews from the shade of a large, circus-striped tent by the headgates: They see their promised water allocation as private property that the federal government has stolen from them.

At the same time, few endangered fish in Upper Klamath Lake—C’waam and Koptu (also known as Lost River and shortnose suckers, respectively), both special to the Klamath—can reproduce this year, because lake levels are so low; salmon in the Klamath River, which drains out of the lake, are dying in massive numbers from a disease linked to warm water. With water shut off to National Wildlife Refuges, migrating birds will arrive in the fall to find a small pool of fetid water teeming with deadly diseases—if they are lucky. It might just be dust.

We hear all the time about how climate change is going to spur terrible water conflicts, and this sounds a lot like that story. But that’s not the only way to look at it. The Klamath Basin’s water problems can be solved, even as the climate changes, with compromise, innovation, money, and a willingness to work through the bitterness. If we can do it here, where water is so scarce and tensions are so high, there's hope it can be done anywhere in the West.

Making things right starts with trying to honor the promises made to the people who managed these lands for thousands of years. The inherent rights of the Basin’s tribes predate the arrival of settlers, and were woven into United States law through treaties. Their right to fish and hunt and collect resources means that the U.S. government has an ethical obligation to keep those species from disappearing.

There’s also an increasing recognition that beyond honoring treaties, returning land- and water-management responsibilities to the tribes is smart policy, because they are highly motivated to preserve the ecologies that make their homelands home—and they have access to millennia’s worth of detailed ecological knowledge to help them do just that.

Next, water allocations need to be managed collaboratively by all users, likely in the form of a comprehensive settlement. A plan like this almost came together in the 2010s, but it died in Congress at the last minute. Many of the relationships forged during that process persist. Negotiating the details won’t be easy, but once it is done, it will offer some level of predictability for everyone. Farmers, for example, will know in advance exactly how much compensation they will receive if their water is turned off in a year such as this one, and so they can plan accordingly.

Perhaps the most controversial part of such a settlement would be the idea of reducing the total amount of water promised to agricultural producers in the irrigation network known as the “Klamath Project.” The scientists I spoke with all supported shrinking the project. This would particularly benefit the wildlife refuges, which rely on project water to create wetlands for half of the migrating bird species on the Pacific Flyway. Buying producers out costs money—but so does approving multimillion-dollar relief packages every drought year. And water allocations could be reduced with generous buyouts that would amply compensate producers for returning their share of the lake water to the commonweal. But among project farmers and ranchers, this approach rankles. “The folks we represent do not like that idea whatsoever,” Mark Johnson, the deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association, told me. “They do not like the idea of being bought out. Their grandparents homesteaded. There is a lot of history there.”

A soft approach would be to reduce the promises made by the project opportunistically, as producers without interested heirs retire, nibbling away at the total water allocation without suddenly unraveling agricultural communities. Farmers who stay may have to change their business model, eventually, moving away from rigid contracts for prespecified amounts and grades of crops that don’t allow for unpredictable water conditions. These farmers would need to be supported as they experiment with more flexible approaches, including lower-water crops, new breeds, and new styles of irrigation. The capital investments required to quickly switch to a new crop rotation can be enormous.

In addition, the government could pay farmers to stay and use part of their water to restore wetland or create bird habitat on their property—to grow swans and pelicans and baby C’waam and Koptu—either permanently or in rotation between years of growing crops.

This is already happening at a small scale. Some farmers in the Basin agree to leave half of their grain standing for birds to eat or keep a portion of their fields flooded for migrating waterfowl to use as habitat. (As a bonus, the floodwater kills many crop pests.) “It is amazing bird habitat, and you can plant organic crops in the field the following year and the productivity is through the roof,” Johnson said. The identity of the Western rancher or the farmer—already tied to stewardship of the land—is expanding to encompass cultivating nonfood plants and animals.

More wetlands are definitely needed, both in the Klamath Project area as well as upstream of the lake. The soil in the Klamath Basin is rich in phosphorus. The sprawling wetlands that once surrounded Upper Klamath Lake and its tributaries acted as a filter, with plants arresting this sediment and growing luxuriantly in its waylaid nutrients. These marshes were home to sedges, rushes, tules, and staggeringly large populations of fish and birds. All of these could return some day, along with wocus, the beautiful water flower that was once an important food source for the Klamath people.

With most of those wetlands gone, the phosphorus-rich sediment coming down rivers and streams instead simply dumps into Upper Klamath Lake, where it fertilizes toxic algae. Nearly every year, we experience a bloom. The lake stinks, and signs go up warning that the toxic sludge can sicken children and kill pets. No one swims in Upper Klamath Lake. When the fall comes and the algae die, a bacterial feast begins, sucking all the oxygen out of the water, killing nearly all juvenile C’waam and Koptu.

Fencing more cattle away from the banks of tributary streams and rivers so they don’t push phosphorus-rich soil into the current with their heavy hooves would help, but fixing the lake also means undertaking massive wetland restoration. With support from the federal government, the agricultural community and the Klamath Tribes could do much of this work. Upper-basin ranchers could diversify their business, producing grass-fed beef as well as streamside wetlands where baby fish can grow. They could even market their beef as fish-friendly.

To give another example, right now a 30,000-acre ranch is for sale on one of the rivers that flows into Upper Klamath Lake, the Sprague. For a mere 23 million bucks, the federal government could buy it and transfer it to the Klamath Tribes to restore. After all, the entire property used to belong to the Klamath Tribes, before the federal government terminated its recognition of the tribes in 1954 and sold off their reservation. (The recognition—but not the land—was returned in 1986.)

Even with investments such as this, the water quality in the lake could take decades to improve enough to see juvenile fish survive. In the meantime, many adult fish are nearing the end of their natural life. So an insurance population is essential: Currently, the clearest one is part of an existing project to rear captive C’waam and Koptu, and it needs continued support.

The Klamath Tribes are focused on lake fish; downriver tribes are worried about salmon runs in the Klamath River, which connects the lake to the Pacific Ocean. To keep these fish alive and to honor rights to fish here, the dams on the Klamath River must come down. This is already in the works. Other tributaries of the Klamath, such as the Trinity, the Shasta, and the Scott, must also be managed to contribute more clean, cold water. Some day, the salmon may once again run all the way up to Upper Klamath Lake, creating a living connection between the tribes and supporting them culturally and economically.

So that’s how you end a water war. Respect Indigenous sovereignty. Make water allocations predictable and reduce the amount of water going to crops and pastures over time. Fix lake-water quality through nutrient management and wetland restoration. Take out the dams. I reckon you could do it all with $1 billion—beer money, these days—and it could serve as a model for the entire West.

Pretty much everyone I spoke with—tribal leaders, scientists, and farmers alike—broadly agree on what needs to be done (with the exception of downsizing the project). They see the guys in the tent by the canal headgates as a sideshow to the real work of fixing the basin. Apart from anything else, ripping the headgates open and letting water smash through an unprepared system of canals and ditches, some of which aren’t in great shape at the moment, could cause local floods and damage to property. But several of the people I spoke with did wonder whether the national attention the group is garnering might help reopen a conversation about doing that real work.

And now is the time. Joe Biden is in the White House. His 2022 budget request included $24.1 million for fixing the Klamath Project. We need four times that amount, and his request might well not be fully funded, but it is a start. Deb Haaland is running the Department of Interior, the parent agency for the Bureau of Reclamation and half a dozen other federal land- and water-management agencies. I spoke with Clayton Dumont, a Klamath Tribal Council member. “Our people are really hopeful,” he said. “With Secretary Haaland being an Indigenous person, we know she understands what it is like to be connected to a homeland.” Most Klamath Project irrigators also want a “comprehensive settlement,” Johnson said. Uncertainty and lawsuits have frayed nerves. Producers want to know what the deal is going to be, and they are willing to compromise. According to Johnson, “Everyone I represent wants to see all the species do well.” The idea of downsizing the project leaves “a bitter taste in their mouths,” but they are at least somewhat open to experimenting with different ways to farm, or with doing restoration work on their land, if it pencils out money-wise.

Most of Ammon Bundy’s supporters in his new “People’s Rights” network aren’t even farmers or ranchers. Just a handful of actual producers have gathered by the dry irrigation canal, in the large canvas tent rented from Big Top Rentals. These few malcontents want water and they want it now, and they care nothing for the fish, the tribes, or—seemingly—the long-term future. They are what happens when being aggrieved becomes one’s only identity.

I want to tell them: I know you are disappointed. Everyone is disappointed. This is the West. All the promises were broken. The best we can do now is to take a look at what surrounds us—the lake, the river, the fish, the birds, the land, one another—and figure out how we can all live well together.