A drought-strained landscape Mount Shasta can be seen over a field of hay bales in the Shasta River Valley in July 2021. Arden Barnes/The Klamath Falls Herald and News
News reports about the Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border often focus on the upcoming removal of four large dams on the Klamath River. That framework often fails to encompass the full picture of the struggles for all those — humans, animals, and fish — depending on the basin’s water. A recent series in the Klamath Falls Herald and News pulled back the camera, looking past the perennial water fights and into the basin’s past and its future in a climate-changed world. Below, the author discusses the larger story he wanted to tell.
Last September, a rancher named Becky Hyde met me on a bridge outside the tiny town of Bly, Ore., near the headwaters of the Klamath Basin. The Sprague River flowed lazily beneath us, parched after nearly two years of unprecedented drought. Above, a brilliant blue sky — one of the first we’d seen since the smoke had settled in from all directions in July — stretched out as if it had just woken up from a nap.
As we watched the stream, cradled by gently sloping volcanic hills, I asked Hyde about her experience of the Klamath’s water crisis and climate change in general, and how she felt this place could better prepare itself for the future. She told me how some of her family’s cattle burned up in the early days of the Bootleg Fire; about plagues of grasshoppers; and about the recent demise of the basin’s historic water sharing and restoration agreements, forged more than a decade ago by tribes, farmers, ranchers, fishermen and conservationists.
We were walking along a river that was a shadow of itself. As an environmental reporter for a small-town newspaper in deep-red southern Oregon farm country, I had spent a year learning about the economic, environmental and social history of the Klamath Basin. My next task was to assess the stress climate change was putting on the system’s fish, wildlife, tribal communities, farmers and ranchers — and how things could get better.
For 80 years, an engineered landscape
Before this was farm country, it was a wetland oasis. The Sprague, teeming with beaver dams, once meandered for miles along the floor of this valley, flooding seasonal marshes and meadows during times of high water, which would then release it during the dry season like a sponge being squeezed.
But fur trappers killed off most of the beavers in the early 19th century. In the 1950s, after the federal government’s final grab of land originally inhabited by the Klamath Tribes, engineers built levees and dikes that kept the Sprague confined to its channels. They tore out the willows and sedges that held riverbanks together, drained floodplains to create irrigated pastures and logged and grazed the surrounding forests. Thirsty cattle now trample the banks’ soils, increase erosion and worsen water quality.
The Sprague had lost its sponges, but was still expected to give the farmers and ranchers water forever.
The Sprague had lost its sponges, but was still expected to give the farmers and ranchers water forever. Hyde told me this spot could teach us a lesson about the entire basin: We can’t truly fix this situation without fundamentally shifting the way we think about water — and the way we use it. Or don’t.
Water Year 2021 was, by many accounts, the worst the Klamath Basin had experienced in modern history. Water Year 2022 might give it a run for its money. Climate change is a big contributor — a recent study showed that, with the help of 2020 and 2021, the West’s current megadrought is the worst in 1,200 years. Warming temperatures were responsible for about a fifth of that intensity.
Drought hits ecosystems stripped of resilience
Drought in the Klamath Basin in 2022 means something different than it did in 1850. Dry periods used to be a clearly written clause in the invisible contract species are bound by. Fish, forests, tules, deer and birds adapted, largely indifferent to the change in weather. So did humans. Cycles of wet and dry kept ecosystems in balance: droughts reduced water levels, allowing wetland plants to grow; drier years meant more natural fire to clear forests overgrown from wet cycles; fish populations waxed and waned over centuries.
Now, drought means species inching toward extinction. Toxic algae and fish parasites. It means universally unpopular federal decisions, lawsuits and harsh words between neighbors.
Now, drought means species inching toward extinction. Toxic algae and fish parasites. It means universally unpopular federal decisions, lawsuits and harsh words between neighbors. It means tribal members who can’t feed themselves and farmers who can’t pay their mortgages. It means battles between claimants for what little water remains.
The fault lines often mirror bitter splits between conservatives making economic arguments and liberal groups making environmental ones or supporting tribal claims. But the region’s history and the decades-old accretion of patchwork administrative structures work against everyone. Drought means crisis, hardship, and the extremes winning out. More drought may prompt violence.
Norwegians have a saying: There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing. Granted, they’re probably talking about cold weather, but the adage applies to a warmer world. Climate change is not occurring in a vacuum: It intensifies the existing harm we’ve done to our local ecosystems, the clothes we’ve stripped from them.
For the first time, irrigators were wanting for water
Last summer, the Klamath became the ugly face of climate change in the dry West. Farmers in the federally managed Klamath Irrigation Project went without water for the first time ever. Thousands of baby salmon died of disease while C’waam and Koptu, two ancient species of suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, inched closer to extinction. Birds skipped their ancestral rest stops on the Pacific Flyway as 95 percent of the basin’s remaining wetlands dried up. When cooperation between stakeholders was never more crucial, anti-government activist Ammon Bundy threatened to show up and wreak havoc.
News crews flocked to the remote basin to cover what appeared to be Ground Zero for the new round of water wars. I saw countless pieces by reporters trying to wrap their heads around the situation’s dizzying complexity. Lacking space and time to tell the full story, some picked sides. Solutions are seldom as newsworthy as conflict.
Solutions are seldom as newsworthy as conflict.
Having joined the Herald and News in Klamath Falls as part of the Report for America service journalism corps, I had received a grant that spring from MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative to produce reporting on climate change impacts and solutions in my area. My challenge was to frame this climate-driven crisis, which magnifies the basin’s existing water woes, as an opportunity.
So I described the kind of clothes the Klamath would need to survive. A thick cloak with fabric made of wetlands would wick winter moisture and temper summer thirst. Sturdy boots of scientific inquiry and traditional knowledge would provide stability over shifting sands and soils. Everything would be held together by the stitches of collaboration among diverse communities.
Publishing a “resilience catalog”
At the start of this winter, we released “Project Klamath,” a sort of resilience catalog. In five parts, the series details climate change’s potential to drive this area into a true water war — but also shows how that can be avoided. From ‘farming’ waterfowl and fish to restoring wetlands and trying to undo some harm done to Indigenous peoples, “Project Klamath” examines the seeds of solutions scattered throughout the basin and what’s prevented them from sprouting. Finally, it ventures into the realm of speculation, offering two fictional — but possible — visions of the Klamath Basin in 2050.
I recently chatted with Hyde to hear her thoughts on the project, after it became clear that the basin is staring down yet another serious drought this summer. She told me the constant scarcity of water in recent years has deeply traumatized all local communities, affecting their ability to communicate with one another. Part of the solution, she said, is comprehensive storytelling capturing the watershed’s entirety.
“We need creative ideas. We need to get younger people involved. We need to find places that are adapting and having success,” Hyde said. “But mostly, we need to reestablish good communication between communities. We need that inspiration.”
The Klamath Basin is remote, sparsely populated and largely unknown to the average American. But it’s a microcosm of a changing West, and it could be a laboratory for re-imagining our relationship to water and land. The goals: revive its crucial role in the Pacific Flyway, restore its once-abundant fisheries and reconcile the harms to the landscape wrought by agricultural development.
The Klamath’s story may be one of both environmental catastrophe and our hubris in worsening it, but it’s also a story of resilience, partnership and, most of all, potential.
Alex Schwartz is an environmental journalist originally hailing from Central Florida. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University, where he specialized in science reporting and environmental policy, and his freelance work has appeared in Gizmodo and Atlas Obscura, among others. The Herald and News, where he worked throughout 2020 and 2021, lost Alex, photojournalist Arden Barnes, and the rest of its four-person newsroom staff earlier this month when the editor resigned and the staffers realized that their journalism would never receive adequate financial support from its owners. The increasing number of absentee owners and the financial straits of local newspapers have led to the closure of 2,200 since 2005, according to The Washington Post. Schwartz’s series, which had outside sponsors, is an example of the kind of cutting-edge reporting that will disappear if local newsrooms don’t receive essential support.
Edited by Felicity Barringer.
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‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.
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