Projects and Stories

Water and Prosperity in the Klamath Basin

What started a decade ago as a small group of people restoring a single ranch, is now a movement of diverse groups across Oregon and California working together to find solutions that benefit everyone in the region.


Water is everything in the Klamath

It is a basin uniquely rich in fish, agricultural productivity, and beauty, yet has suffered from decades of conflict because it does not always have enough water to support these riches. From Tribes and ranchers at the headwaters in Oregon, farmers and small towns in the valleys, to commercial and tribal fishermen on the California coast, people in this basin depend on water. What Sustainable Northwest helped start a decade ago as a small group of people restoring a single ranch, is now a movement of diverse interests reaching from Oregon and California to Washington, D.C. working together to find solutions that work for the basin's natural resources and the people that rely upon them.

From crisis to agreement (2001-2012)

Sustainable Northwest has worked to catalyze change in the Klamath Basin for over ten years. We first arrived in the aftermath of the basin's latest crises over too little water, including the first irrigation water shut-offs under the Endangered Species Act in 2001, the largest fish kill in the history of the West in 2002, and a complete shutdown of the commercial salmon fishery along 700 miles of the Pacific Coast in 2006. Through patient diplomacy, organizational development, and policy innovation, we have helped local leaders consider new ideas and create balanced, collaborative solutions for sharing water resources among wildlife and people in the Klamath ecosystem. 

We pioneered a new approach to revitalizing the Yainix Ranch in the Sprague River Valley in 2004 (learn about Yainix here and here), offered support for visionary local leaders in early water-sharing negotiations in the Upper Basin in 2006, and played an instrumental role in the creation of the landmark Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) signed in 2010. These agreements advocated a more sustainable basin-wide water balance, authorized removal of four outdated hydroelectric dams, and provided support for economic redevelopment. The Klamath Basin Economic Restoration Act of 2011 was introduced in Congress to enact the agreements. When some early aims of the agreements were met early in 2012, most notably a water sharing plan between the Klamath Tribes and irrigators served by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, optimism that the basin was finally on a path to recovery peaked.

Progress from new challenges (2013-2014)

But the Klamath bill stalled in Congress for a second year, a perfect storm of events brought matters to a head once again in 2013. Oregon and California declared a drought emergency. The Klamath Tribes and irrigators served by the Bureau of Reclamation enforced newly-minted senior water rights, cutting off water to hundreds of ranchers not served by Reclamation. Fish sacred to the tribes continued to teeter near extinction and emergency flows from the Trinity River were needed to protect the fall chinook on the lower river. Power rates for irrigators and the wildlife refuges increased 1200% compared to 2006. Too little water led to a disease outbreak on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge that killed 9,000 birds. A return to conflict felt inevitable.

But despite these tests, the community rose together once again. Local leaders shined at a Senate hearing and on the Klamath Basin Task Force, which delivered on its charge from Oregon's Congressional delegation to cut the new federal costs of the agreements and extend their benefits to more local interests. In particular, the Klamath Tribes and Upper Basin irrigators not served by the Bureau of Reclamation reached a historic agreement in principle that outlines terms for long-term water-sharing and fisheries recovery. (See a copy of the final task force report here.)

Following on the Agreement in Principle reached last year, in April 2014 the Klamath Tribes and the Upper Basin irrigation community finalized a comprehensive agreement to protect tribal trust rights, provide water certainty for ranchers, and potentially end ages of fighting over water in the lands above Upper Klamath Lake. It builds on the KBRA by adding influential ranchers previously opposed to settlement, thereby improving the chances of passing a new Klamath bill. Early milestones have already been met, with plans already in place to retire nearly 8,000 acre/feet of water and restore over 50% of priority streams.

Following on this critical new pact, a revised Klamath bill was introduced in May 2014, the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act of 2014 (S.2379—113th Congress, 2013-2014), to enact and help fund the suite of three integrated Klamath agreements now in place. The Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee overwhelmingly approved the bill in November (see committee report here). Unfortunately, despite bipartisan support in the Senate, the House was unwilling to consider a Klamath during the “lame-duck” Congressional session late last year. 

Some good news arrived in early 2015. In January, the Klamath bill approved by Committee last year was reintroduced in the new Senate (S.133—114th Congress, 2014-2015).  Further, House members have signaled a new willingness to consider a Klamath bill in the new Congress based on expanded support in the irrigation community, and recent endorsements from the local chamber of commerce, Farm Bureau, and Cattleman’s Association.

Sustainable Northwest was at the forefront of these efforts in 2013 and 2014. We offered critical financial assistance and coaching to community-based groups, public policy expertise, and shuttle diplomacy that empowered the community to stay unified and create unprecedented new opportunities during perhaps their most challenging times to date.

Moving Forward

The Klamath is on a path to recovery. Sustainable Northwest remains optimistic that Congress will pass a bill that helps the Klamath in 2015. Also, we will continue to support local leaders and community groups on the front lines in the basin, in particular those working to implement the Upper Basin comprehensive agreement on-the-ground. Further, we are working with national experts to explore innovative means to advance the ecological and economic objectives of the Klamath agreements without federal legislation.

From years of working side by side with leaders in the Klamath, we have seen what can happen when we are courageous enough to put aside our own ideology and vision of the perfect outcome, and instead place the needs of our neighbors and our community alongside our own.

Sustainable Northwest will continue to stand with local leaders in the Klamath committed to finding community-driven, collaborative ways to bring lasting prosperity and peace on the river.