Another drought year, another long, hot summer, more fighting over what little precious water we have in the Klamath Basin. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Except that things don’t have to stay the same. We know what needs to be done to enable everyone to benefit from the Klamath River’s limited water resources. We know that unless all our communities in the basin — tribal, agricultural and municipal — get enough water to meet their basic needs, no one will have any water security.
The last few weeks have brought a steady stream of news and court rulings that add to the long history of twists and turns in the Klamath Basin water wars. This includes a decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that clarifies the process for removing the four dams on the Klamath, the ruling on Klamath Irrigation District’s challenges to the allocation and use of water in Upper Klamath Lake, and new federal investments in the science of the Basin. Whether touted as victories for the Tribes or for farmers, the long-term outcomes of most of these decisions remain unclear.
What is clear is that continued use of the courts to determine the future of the Klamath is having real impacts on people, farms and fish, while failing to provide security for anyone, let alone the economic prosperity that is so badly needed.
Making water a zero sum game determined by entities that don’t live in the Basin only sets the stage for the next round of litigation, while fish populations continue their slide towards extinction and communities continue to struggle both socially and economically.
The reality is the people who live in the Klamath Basin already know what is needed to solve these challenges, but the time to act is now as the clock is running out. Everyone can agree we have to share and better manage our water resources, especially as precipitation patterns continue to change. This means recognizing that irrespective of the outcomes of any water adjudication or biological opinion, rivers need to have water flowing in them and there is real value for all of us in farming and ranching.
To have enough water for both these needs we have to get serious about modernizing our water systems. This means making piping and irrigation systems more efficient, but it also means restoring floodplains at meaningful scales to store winter water naturally, making real plans to deal with drought, and recognizing the long history of racial and cultural trauma in the basin and taking big steps to rectify injustices. This can only happen when all parties come to the table, ready to engage in the hard conversations.
While more science can always help inform our water resources management, we already know a lot about what should be done — we just have to make the sacrifices and investments to get it done.
Improving water quality will unquestionably help fish and will ultimately make more water available for agriculture. By far the easiest step to achieve this objective is to remove the four dams — and PacifiCorp must remain committed to getting that done.
The other step is hard, but equally important: we must heal our watersheds and better manage our wetlands, agricultural and forest lands to keep our water cold and clean. And we can do this in ways that make more water available for ranching and farming, and increase timber harvest.
Other major river basins in the west are finding commonsense, collaborative ways to develop and implement water solutions that benefit all stakeholders, and as a result they are receiving the levels of federal funding needed to solve their problems.
We only need to look a little bit north at the Yakima Basin to see a model that is bringing economic, ecological and cultural security. The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan has secured tens of millions of dollars to improve fish passage and habitat, increase water storage, modernize irrigation, and develop market-based water banks. Their communities are prospering as a result.
The time for such solutions in the Klamath Basin is now. Let’s commit to each other to solve these challenges, not wait for the courts to pick winners and losers in an endless cycle of frustration and conflict.
— Chrysten Lambert is the Oregon Director for Trout Unlimited. She has worked on fisheries restoration and water policy in the Klamath Basin for 18 years.