The Long Haul Fight for Fish & People: An Interview with Klamath Tribal leaders and supporters

C'waam spawning in Klamath Lake.

Last month, I had the honor of talking with Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry; Mark Buettner, Klamath Tribes' biologist; Jay Weiner, an attorney who works with the Klamath Tribes; Brad Parrish, Klamath Tribes water rights specialist; Roberta Frost, Klamath Tribes Council Secretary; Willa Powless, Klamath Tribes Council Member; and Jana DeGarmo, Klamath Tribes Grant and Contract Compliance Officer about their work to protect and restore Tribal fisheries in the Upper Klamath Lake and throughout the broader Klamath Basin.

Jill: Could you start off by telling us about the Klamath Tribes’ relationship with the Upper Klamath Lake ecosystem and particularly the endangered c'waam and the koptu (two species of sucker fish)?

Chairman Gentry: The fish are so important to our people. Our people are here because of the resources that were here. The suckers were a big part of how our people survived, and because of that we have a strong link to the suckers, both culturally and because they are subsistence species that we’d hoped to have forever to harvest.

Mark Buettener: Unfortunately, even with protection under the ESA (Endangered Species Act), the fish have continued to decline over the last 30 or so years. We’re really worried about the potential total loss of the species.

There’s been an effort recently to propagate the suckers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started experimenting about five years ago, and over the last couple of years the Klamath Tribes have also started a fish propagation program to prevent the suckers from going extinct and hopefully release enough fish of a large enough size that we can start seeing better survival. There’s also been restoration work, including marsh restoration to help improve habitat. Of course, our long-term objective is to improve the overall health of the system.

Over the years the biggest problem has been poor water quality in Upper Klamath Lake. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to improve water quality conditions. There’s got to be a basin wide effort to reduce some of the nutrient and sediment loading that occurs as a result of poor land-use practices. A lot of the tributaries to the lake are surrounded by agricultural land, so there’s a lot of impacts from agriculture and cattle grazing, which has degraded the water quality, and we’re working with state and federal agencies and private landowners to implement best management practices and habitat restoration in the watershed.

Since Upper Klamath Lake is the major irrigation source for a 200,000-acre federal irrigation project we are dealing with ESA consultation activities where their operations affect how the lake is managed in terms of water levels, and water levels impact not only fish habitat but the water quality conditions in the lake.

Chairman: That also brings to mind how complex this is, because there are federal agencies, state agencies, multiple ownerships, property owners. ESA is a part of it, but ESA only goes so far as to try to stop the fish from going extinct. We really need to have harvestable fisheries.

Jill: What are the new tension points related to climate change that you’re already experiencing or that you see coming that are impacting your efforts to protect and restore the basin.

Chairman Gentry:

We are in a real dry period, and have been, and that affects how we approach the reinitiation of consultation on the [federal government’s] biological opinion[1]. Climate change must be considered and addressed when we look at future management related to the biological opinion.

Jay: We’re really seeing climate change problematizing the planning models that the Bureau of Reclamation uses [to manage the lake]. The climate is based on planning models that use basically a 40-year retrospective period that dates back to the early ‘80s. One of the things that we’re seeing in the course of over the past 5 to 10 years at least, is the year-to-year variation.

The frequency of low water years has increased. It is no longer responsible to make planning decisions based on a retrospective record because of how rapidly the climate is changing around us.

Jill: What are the points of progress and challenges or setbacks this year?

Chairman: I believe we’re holding our own. We’re pushing as hard as we can using the available science and trying to use all of the tools at our disposal to push for what we think is important for the fish. I think there’s recently been a little bit of a turn — I’m not sure how far it goes — with the Bureau of Reclamation in their engagement with us. We’re having more frequent government-to-government meetings and we will be looking for meaningful response to our input.

We believe that all of the federal agencies have a trust responsibility because of our treaty to give us greater or at least the same consideration they give the irrigation project, especially given the dire condition of the fish, which is a treaty resource. It seems like we’re always pushed to the very minimum habitat needs for the fish so they can provide more water for agriculture.

I’m not going to say we have some lasting significant victory on the litigation front, but we’re currently holding our own and treading water. My hope, honestly, with the different administration coming in is that things would turn around a little bit and be a little more positive in response to needs for the fish

Jay: As Mark indicated, this was an incredibly challenging year on the water management standpoint and I think for the Klamath Tribes, we had a strange year, in terms of a shift of revolving alliances. (The Bureau of Reclamation’s) default seems to privilege irrigators beyond everyone else. One of the ways that we’ve seen that play out is — actually we’ve seen it play out pretty aggressively — is in pitting the upper and lower basin environmental and Tribal interests against each other. We ultimately found ourselves in the uncomfortable position this spring and actually joined with Reclamation to defend against a suit that the Yurok Tribe was bringing because of their [Yurok Tribe] desire for high, early-season, flushing flows, and because of how the incoming flow has been dramatically dropping for the upper basin during the middle of the spawning season. This was just existentially important for us (to protect water levels in the upper basin).

Ultimately the judge agreed with the side for which we were advocating. This reduced the amount of water coming out from Upper Klamath Lake for downriver flow. It was not at all comfortable for the Tribes to be opposing the Yurok and instead aligning with Reclamation and irrigation interests. But because of the paramount importance of the fish to the Tribes and because the Tribes continue to go where the science takes them, that’s where we found ourselves this spring.

One of the positives that came out of that, from about May to early August, is they managed early water releases from Upper Klamath Lake for both agriculture and lower river diversions based on a more conservative set of influences as compared to what they had done before. While Upper Klamath Lake ran uncomfortably low this year, they did stay above the scientifically established minimum, and we were very lucky not to see major fish dies.

Unfortunately, we come to mid-August, late August, and the end of the irrigation season, and the Yurok Tribe made a request for flows to Reclamation that are built into the operations plan to support a critically important Tribal ceremony. The Klamath Tribes said, “You know what. We support this as long as they can do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the lake.” Reclamation ultimately in mid-August turned around and said, “Yurok, we can’t do that this year. The flow is too low, and we’re worried about our Endangered Species Act [requirements], and we’re concerned about refill going into 2021. We can’t give you this one.”

The Yurok were ultimately able to get that water from Pacificorps and have that ceremony, which was fortunate. What was most galling to us in that situation is that it’s an indicator to us that Reclamation really hasn’t changed its order of priorities and continues to have this strategy of pitting the Tribes against each other. Literally, two weeks later, after declining to supply this water to the Yurok for their ceremony, they announced that they were increasing the project allocation of roughly the same amount of water that Yurok was asking for from Upper Klamath Lake and gave it to the irrigators instead for the end-of-season operations.

Mark: Sen. Jeff Merkely (Oregon) has been able to secure substantial funding to support our fish rearing program and to backfill some of the water quality and restoration activities that we’re involved with.

Jill: What else didn’t we cover about your work in the basin that you think is really important for folks to understand?


We feel the general community doesn’t have a good understanding of who we are, what we stand for, or what the real problems are with the fisheries. Unfortunately, there is greater a focus on supporting the agriculture community in the media rather than the Tribal fisheries needs. We are taking steps to bring the whole community along to understand our issues, so we’re not characterized as the bad people getting in the way of the agricultural community.

I think people really need to understand where we’re at, and the fact that what we [the larger society] have been doing isn’t sustainable. It’s obvious by the fact that we’re trying to fight to protect fish that have been here for thousands and thousands of years and trying to restore salmon that were once here for thousands and thousands of years. Now we’re facing climate change.

I just hope that the community will come to a better understanding of the complexities of what is affecting the fish- where the real problems lie. It’s not because the Tribes have treaty rights.

Jana: There are a lot of newer people coming in here and it’s been so long since we’ve been able to harvest our tribal crop. They don’t understand the importance of that [practice], not only to the Tribes but to the community as a whole and past history.

Jay: This isn’t just about the Tribes and the Tribes’ rights or some paper exercise or some abstract idea of sovereignty. This species that we’re talking about here, as the Chairman said, is both of critical importance to the Tribes but also, they’re suckers. They are extraordinarily hearty fish, and the fact that we are now talking about the extinction of two such sucker species, the fact that that is not a five-alarm fire for the sustainability of the environment of the entire ecosystem of the basin is mind-boggling to me from the outside.

You can’t go in the Upper Klamath Lake in the summer because it will kill you. And it will kill your dog. There were questions on whether we could continue to water crops with this water or if you’re going to sicken consumers, and so the Tribes end up having to bear the brunt of this [reality], when it is ultimately self-defeating for the entire community because they are functionally poisoning the environment around them.

There is just such a perception gap. There’s this notion that “This is just the tribes and they’re making issues for us. Now if they all went away, we could farm and be happy.” That’s just factually wrong and somehow that is not breaking through to the wider public.

Chairman: I think one of the big disconnects, too, is the fish should be every bit as important to everyone as the economy. Those fish are important to us because they’re a part of our culture, our history, and traditional subsistence economy. We want to harvest them again, and we have a federally affirmed Treaty right that should be employed to make it happen. But many folks say, “The lake is dying and the fish are dying, so big deal. We need agriculture and money and just those things have value.”

The efforts to marginalize the Klamath Tribes and almost demonize us and our concerns about the fish just blow me away. We want to change that thinking and want people to understand how important the fish are. Period. Just because they’re there and they should be there.

[1] A biological opinion is the document that states the opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether or not the federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species under the Endangered Species Act or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.

Meyer is grateful to partner with the Klamath Tribes on their work to protect and restore the suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and hope to continue supporting their efforts.