Water dialogues: Voices from the Klamath

“This is the time I was challenged the most in my life and grew the most in my life,” reflects Klamath Tribal Council Vice Chairman Don Gentry (~35:15).

Gentry spoke at an open and candid May 2nd panel at Portland State University, hosted by PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Sustainable Northwest, a Portland-based nonprofit that has been working in the Klamath Basin. Other panelists were Erica Terrence of the nonprofit Klamath Riverkeeper; Becky Hyde, a rancher with the Country Natural Beef coop; and Glenn Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association.

A (very) brief timeline:

  • 2001: In drought conditions, the Bureau of Reclamation reduces irrigation water to farmers and ranchers. (“The fundamental problem [is] that the Klamath Basin is an overstressed ecosystem in which there are too many claimants for too little water” — NYT editorial).
  • 2002: Over 30,000 salmon die in the Klamath River, due in part to low water flows. (“Simply put, there isn’t enough water in the sprawling but arid watershed to serve both fish and farmers optimally.” — in SF Chronicle.)
  • 2010: Two agreements signed: the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement.

For anyone interested in the Pacific Northwest, or in water and watershed issues, or in environmental conflict resolution, this video is really worth a watch.

Here’s rancher Becky Hyde (~1:01:00):

I have a short story that kind of symbolizes what these agreements mean to me, and it came long before these agreements even came about.

In — probably about — 2005, there was a series of meetings that went over about an eight-month period. And it was the first time that, just in the upper basin, the highly divided ag community and the tribal community came together.

And just to be in the room together — there were people outside protesting these meetings, just because there were people in the room together.

And there were about seven or eight farmers and five tribal people. And we were visiting one day, and we had started to look at numbers. We would spend hours and hours looking at very confusing graphs. If these people got this much water, and the lake fish got this much water, and the farmers got this much water, and the fish downstream got this much water, how much water would that be? Honestly, you have no clue. Most people like me don’t even understand these numbers.

We were sitting around one day, and I think it was comforting for a while to be in numbers. And the farmers were trying to grapple with the idea that these people (the tribes) have suffered a huge loss.

So there were some farmers in the room that were suddenly realizing: They (the tribes) lost their fishery.

So, how do we fix that? Well, we could pay you. How many fish did you lose? We could put a number on that fish. And we could pay you.

I don’t want it to sound funny. What I want to come across is how human this is. It was a first step toward an act of kindness. How do we fix this?

The former chair of the Klamath Tribes was in the room, and i looked at him and said: What would it mean to the tribes if we just said we’re sorry.

He started to cry, and he said: It would be worth a million dollars.

Then, one of the farmers went home that night to Tulelake and was in a bar and shared this story with another farmer — and ended up in a bar fight of some sort …

Imagine then, a certain amount of your leadership getting it. And then imagine some of your community not getting it — and actually staying really angry, which is kind of where we are today.

Congressional action is still required for parts of the Agreements. From the governmental website:

Some aspects of the KBRA [Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement] require Congressional action, but the federal agencies also have existing authorities to implement some provisions.

For more information see:

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