Drought Ignites Centuries-Old Water Dispute in Klamath Lake, Oregon

Two Leaders of Water Protests in Oregon        Photo: Holly Dillemuth, Jefferson Public Radio

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

This year’s historic drought has intensified a century-old dispute over water in the Klamath Lake region on the Oregon-California border. One hundred years ago, the federal government drained lakes and re-routed rivers to make farming easier, but this year’s drought has sent the region into crisis. Klamath Lake, the largest in Oregon, is so low that fish may not survive — salmon have been dying en masse. As a result, the federal government stopped exporting water to farms for the first time since 1907, to the dismay of the region’s farmers. Indeed, two have threatened to breach the headgates of the federal irrigation project’s main canal and try to release water.

Why this Matters: This drought may be the worst in a century — but the trend is likely to only get worse due to climate change. In Nevada, Lake Mead’s water levels have dropped so low that the Colorado River will not be able to deliver as much water next year. 87% of the West is under at least a moderate drought–California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for 41 of California’s 58 counties. The dispute over the Klamath Project provides a window into the severe conflicts and difficult choices that water shortages of the future will bring. 

The Fight Over Oregon’s Water

As William Jaeger, an economics professor at Oregon State University, put it to the New York Times: “These are not things that are going to get better if climate change continues to give us more uncertainty and less reliable supplies of water.” Conservationists, Native American tribes, farmers, and government officials are attempting to parse through their different water needs. This dispute is even more complicated given the colonial history of the region, in which colonists murdered over a dozen Native Americans on Klamath Lake. The Klamath Tribes signed a treaty relinquishing 20 million acres of their lands in order to continue to hunt and fish. This year, juvenile salmon have been dying of parasitic infections, and this die-off could end up being the worst on record.

But the desire to keep Klamath’s fish alive conflicts with farmers’ needs in the region. During a 2001 drought, the federal Bureau of Reclamation planned to fully cut off water for farmers for the summer. Farmers and ranchers fought back, opening up the canal gates by force with crowbars and saws. 

Experts worry that violence may break out again. “There are folks on both sides that would really like to throw down and take things in an ugly direction,” Clayton Dumont, a member of the Klamath Tribal Council, told the New York Times. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s a possibility.”

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