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5 Things To Know About The Klamath Water Crisis

Protesters set up a tent across from the Bureau of Reclamation's A Canal, where irrigation water is released for farmers in the Klamath Basin. The site is being used as a "water crisis info center."
Erik Neumann
Protesters set up a tent across from the Bureau of Reclamation's A Canal, where irrigation water is released for farmers in the Klamath Basin. The site is being used as a "water crisis info center."

Tensions have been building in Klamath Falls in recent weeks over a drought that is devastating farmland, fish deemed sacred to native tribes, and wildlife. The Klamath Basin, along the Oregon-California border, has a complex history. Drought and fights over water aren’t new.

Here are five things to know about the unfolding Klamath water crisis:

1. There’s a drought all over the West right now. Why is this such a big issue in the Klamath Basin? The Klamath Basin is a largely agricultural region. More than 1,200 family farms lean heavily on water from the Klamath Project, a federally-operated system of dams, canals and reservoirs that collect and store water along the border of Oregon and California.

2. How bad is the drought in the Klamath Basin this year? Pretty bad. The US Drought Monitor lists the region in the two most intense categories of drought: “extreme” and “exceptional.” In May, low water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake prompted water managers with the federal Bureau of Reclamation to cut off water to irrigated farmland almost completely. So-called "flushing" flows of water typically released down the Klamath River to ward off bacterial infections that are killing juvenile salmon were also cancelled.

3. Why is water being cut off to farmers? Under the Endangered Species Act, the water in Upper Klamath Lake must be maintained at a certain minimal level to protect endangered fish species that live in the lake. With record low inflows, water can’t be released without risking extinction for the struggling fish.

4. What about those endangered species in Upper Klamath Lake and further down the Klamath River on the California side? Farmers are far from the only ones who rely on water in the Klamath Basin. Members of the Klamath Tribes need water in Upper Klamath Lake to protect two species of endangered sucker fish, known as C’waam and Koptu, that are culturally important to the tribe. Further down the Klamath River, in California, Chinook and endangered Coho salmon are similarly important to the Yurok and Karuk tribes. According to Yurok biologists, 97% of a sample of juvenile salmon captured on a stretch of the Klamath River last month were infected with c. Shasta, a fatal parasite that thrives in warm, shallow water. Migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway also depend on water in several national wildlife refuges in the basin that could go dry this summer.

5. I’ve heard about protests. What’s going on with that? And has it happened before? A group led by two Klamath Basin farmers is threatening to break into the headgates of the main irrigation canal — owned by the Bureau of Reclamation — to turn the water back on for agriculture. Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen recently bought property next to the irrigation headgates — the "faucet" which controls water flow into the "A" Canal — and are using it as a self-described “water crisis info center.” These threats reference another drought year in 2001, when frustrated irrigators broke through the federal government’s fence and turned the water back on. Many other farmers in the Klamath Basin, however, have said they oppose this kind of action and that it will be counterproductive to their interests.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.