It’s another dry and difficult year in the Klamath River basin. The region’s communities are facing unprecedented uncertainty. Downstream, the Yurok Tribe depends on adequate river flows to prevent further collapse of Klamath salmon populations, which are at the center of the Tribe’s sustenance and way of life. Amid this drought, the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) shut off required flows during a disease outbreak, flows that help ensure threatened salmon recover. As a fishing tribe, we are grappling with a grave crisis — our critical food source, our community, and our way of life is in peril.
Given such scarcity of water, the Yurok Tribe has more in common with farmers and ranchers than one might think. There simply isn’t enough Klamath River water for all demands and as a result, no one will escape hardship. Yet myths and misinformation foster greater divides and prevent us from finding common ground.
Klamath Basin water issues are complex, for what used to be a natural system is now heavily managed. Due to changes in hydrologic conditions and the river ecology, complex plans and biological opinions (BiOp) are needed to strike a balance among competing demands for increasingly scarce water. This includes the recent three-year interim plan for the Bureau’s Klamath Irrigation Project operations. Earlier this year, the Tribe, Reclamation, and irrigators secured the plan that provided for adequate springtime flows to mitigate the salmon disease outbreak and to support needed habitat.
The flushing flows, which help prevent fish disease outbreak, have recently been mischaracterized. Contrary to many reports, this season’s flushing flows did not come from water allocated to agriculture. Nor were they the result of any request from the Tribe or the interim plan. This year’s flushing flows are part of the Reclamation’s formal operations plan as they were in 2019.
Do the flushing flows work? Yes, and they are essential. An independent peer-review by Reclamation found that flushing flows are the best way of controlling the C. shasta fish disease in the Klamath River. May and June are the critical months for salmon, when the disease risk is at its worst and the need for habitat flows the greatest. Early May monitoring results showed salmon infection rates were at 98 percent with 90 percent of those infections so severe they will likely be fatal. Without these flows, the Klamath salmon will succumb to disease.
The Yurok Tribe has always been a fishing tribe and the Klamath River has always been our home. Since time immemorial, the Tribe has managed its natural resources, for we depend on salmon for ceremonies, food and income. However, we haven’t had a meaningful commercial fishery in four of the last five years. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, stocks were too low to support a commercial fishery, and in 2019 the fish did not arrive as projected; in 2017 we also closed our subsistence fall Chinook fishery for the first time in history. This has a tremendous negative impact on our community, culture, and the passing of tribal traditions from one generation to the next.
We are all facing a devastating predicament this year. We understand there is not enough water to fulfill all of our needs. The Tribe has worked collaboratively and made voluntary concessions to help meet the needs upstream as well as downstream. But, very suddenly and without warning, Reclamation made the unilateral decision to cut off water flows in clear violation of an agreement reached in good faith.
Reclamation’s decision to abandon the new operation plan again divides communities into winners and losers and made us point fingers at each other. Sadly, everyone dependent on the Klamath Basin has found themselves on the losing side of a poor water management plan and a system that is overallocated.
We cannot simply retreat to our corners now. The Yurok Tribe believes that creative solutions to this dilemma can be found through mutual dialogue and flexibility. We need management that supports our needs and benefits from our expertise. We need this now.
Frankie Myers is the Yurok Tribe’s Vice-Chairman, a traditional fisher and culture bearer.