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Klamath Tribes protest water released from Upper Klamath Lake

Don Gentry.jpg
Alex Schwartz
Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry spoke during a rally at the Bureau of Reclamation headgates on April 15, 2022.

The headgates of the A Canal, the main irrigation artery to the federally managed Klamath Project at the outlet of Upper Klamath Lake, have once again become a site for activism during the third straight year of punishing drought in the Klamath Basin.

Members of the Klamath Tribal community gathered Friday morning in the parking lot next to the headgates to protest the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to release water from the lake in apparent violation of Endangered Species Act requirements for the fish the tribe calls C’waam and Koptu (Lost River and shortnose suckers), and to call for solutions to the basin’s decades-long water crisis.

Klamath Tribal member Natalie Ball, who organized the rally and runs Klamath Land Back Tours, said she was pleasantly surprised that more than 30 people showed up. She hopes to do more work in the community and even nationally to raise awareness about the plight of the Klamath Basin’s suckers.

“Our C’waam deserve that. Our ambo, the water where that’s happening, deserves to be seen. We deserve to be seen, you know — erasure’s a big part of this,” Ball said. “I love who I am, I love my people, I love the territory and I am terrified of our C’waam going extinct because of this. I want to see them live. I want to see us live.”

The site of the rally, next to Reclamation’s main diversion point for the Klamath Project, has seen numerous protests related to water in the basin. Farmers and tribal members converged here in 2001, when the federal government first curtailed irrigation water to protect fish. Last summer, when farmers had their water supply entirely cut off, two Klamath Project irrigators with ties to far-right activist Ammon Bundy purchased an adjacent property and erected a red-and-white tent, where they hosted several gatherings and threatened to break into the headgates and forcibly release water into the canal. That land sat empty as of Friday.

The endangered fish at the heart of the Tribes’ rally were once a principal food source for Klamath and Modoc people, and they used to number in the millions in the basin’s wetlands, shallow lakes and streams. Colonization and agricultural development drained most of those environments and contributed to toxic algae blooms in Upper Klamath Lake, the last remaining sucker stronghold. Members of the Klamath Tribes have not been able to fish for C’waam or Koptu since 1986, as juveniles cannot survive the lake’s polluted waters to reach adulthood.

Now, the ESA requires Reclamation to keep Upper Klamath Lake at an elevation of 4,142 feet above sea level during April and May so a small population of suckers can access springs on the lake’s eastern shore, where they spawn during those months. The agency failed to do so in 2020, 2021 and now 2022, when the lake sits at more than a foot below that required level.

But Reclamation began releasing 50,000 acre-feet of the lake’s water into the A Canal on Friday to begin the irrigation season for Klamath Project farmers and preserve the structure of the project’s canal system, along with 25,000 acre-feet down the adjacent Klamath River to protect salmon whose populations have also been declining for more than a hundred years. Volumes of water for both the diversion and the salmon flow event are significantly truncated this year due to extreme drought.

Though the majority of suckers spawn in the Williamson River, which empties into the northeast part of the lake, biologists say the species are so close to extinction that all distinct populations should be conserved. For Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry, releasing that water instead of keeping it in the lake is an injustice served to the C’waam and Koptu that once saved the Klamath and Modoc people long ago, according to the suckers’ creation story. He said the very springs those suckers spawn in are where Gmukamps, the Creator, placed them.

“That’s the creation place where we learned our Creator did this thing for us to protect us, to provide for us,” Gentry said to the group. “Those are the fish that are at risk now for the third year in a row.”

Several tribal members led the rally in prayers and songs, calling for strength to weather the drought and for restoration of the Klamath Basin’s ailing ecosystems. Tribal member Garin Kols Riddle sang a traditional song in the Klamath/Modoc language, praying for the spiritual healing and revitalization of “ambo,” or water.

“We didn’t do this to the watershed,” Riddle said. “The difference between us and any other population is that we were born here. Our people’s DNA is in the soil. Everybody else is displaced. We know where we came from, and that’s why we’re standing up.”

Gentry said he didn’t want to disparage farmers and ranchers in the basin, who are also enduring tough times due to the drought, but he said that agricultural producers need to change the way they operate to adapt to a future with less water.

“We’re not trying to forget about the ag community,” he said. “We hope everybody can come together — at least honor and respect us, and the things that were here and should be here forever.”

Alex Schwartz is a freelance reporter based in Klamath Falls. He used to cover the Klamath Basin water crisis and its potential solutions as a newspaper reporter for the Herald and News.