Running out of water: how climate change fuels a crisis in the US west
Except for a brief stint in the military, Paul Crawford has spent his entire life farming in southern Oregon. First, as a boy, chasing his dad through hayfields and now, growing alfalfa on his own farm with his wife and two kids, who want to grow up to be farmers.
“I wouldn’t trade a day of farming with my wife and my kids for anything. It’s an amazing life,” Crawford said. “It just may end if we don’t figure something out on this water issue.”
The American west is drying out as the region faces an unprecedented drought. Few places are as devastated as the Klamath Basin, where Crawford’s farm sits. Straddling the border between California and Oregon, the watershed spans 12,000sq miles – from agricultural lands fed by Upper Klamath Lake to tribal communities surrounding the Klamath River.
Water has long been a source of contention in the basin, pitting farmers against others who rely on the resource, including fish sacred to local Native American tribes. In a typical year, maintaining the balance between these competing interests is a difficult feat. Now, as climate change fuels ever-worsening drought, it’s becoming impossible.
“There’s not enough water to go around, and that is going to be the case for the indefinite future,” said Jeff Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center.
In May, the Bureau of Reclamation – the federal agency that manages water in the region – shut off the primary canal that diverts irrigation water above the Klamath River, leaving farmers without a water supply for the first time since irrigation began in 1907.
“We’re going to try to stay alive and keep this farm afloat for another year. And hope rain comes and snow comes this fall,” Crawford said. “We won’t know until the season’s over, but it could very well end in bankruptcy.”
Today’s water crisis stems from decisions made over a century ago. In 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation drained wetlands to create farmland, disrupting the careful balance of water needed to sustain others in the basin. Among those affected are federally endangered, long-living sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake that were a major source of food for Native American tribes in the area until fish populations plummeted, the wetlands where migratory birds make their home, and the salmon that the tribes further downriver depend on.
As drought dwindles water supplies in the region, each of these populations faces a crisis.
Low water levels in Upper Klamath Lake – where the Klamath Tribes, make their home – leave sucker fish exposed to predators and create low-oxygen conditions in the water.
Two endangered sucker species are central to the Tribes’ creation story. “We wouldn’t be here without those fish,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council. “They were so important to our subsistence.”
Gentry, however, said he hasn’t eaten a sucker fish in years. In 1986, before their endangered status, the Klamath tribes voluntarily stopped hunting suckers in an attempt to shore up their numbers.
“I won’t be surprised if, this summer, we don’t see a major die-off in suckers as well,” Mount said.
In recent years, lake levels have dipped below federally mandated levels and further endangered the ecosystem. This April, a federal judge denied a motion filed by the Klamath tribes to prevent the bureau from sending water downstream, which would have left more water in the areas where the sucker fish are in danger of dying out. The judge said the agency “is not responsible for the unprecedented drought this year”.
“The decision that was just made makes us feel even more marginalized in our own homeland,” Gentry said. “How can we be the people our creator intended us to be if we’re not able to catch, eat and share those fish?”
Downriver, the salmon population – essential to other tribes’ identities and culture – is just 10% of what it was historically.
“We would catch more fish in one day back when I was a child than we do in the whole season now,” said Ron Reed, cultural biologist for the Karuk tribe. “When I was growing up, you could practically walk across the river on salmon.”
Frankie Myers, vice-chairman of the Yurok tribe, said their allocation of salmon this year will come out to fewer than one fish per person. That is a significant blow to a tribe where the median income is $11,000 a year and people rely on salmon to feed their families. Salmon are so central to their way of life, he said, that in their native language, the word for salmon, “nepuy“, translates to “what we eat”.
“The protein that we get from salmon harvest is extremely important to our overall physical health, mental health and spiritual health,” Myers said. “Without salmon, we don’t exist.”
Klamath Basin salmon contend with poor water quality, high water temperatures and slow-moving water, a confluence of factors that can lead to disease outbreaks.
A sample of juvenile salmon captured in early May found that 97% were infected with C shasta, a parasite known to kill salmon en masse. In the first two weeks of that month, the Yurok reported that 70% of the salmon found in their traps were dead.
Water shortfalls are also proving deadly for the birds that live in the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges. When farmers see water shortfalls, so do the wetlands.
“When a bad year comes along, it’s a bad year for the farmers. It’s a bad year for fish. It’s a bad year for birds,” Mount said. “This is one of the most important areas for the Pacific flyways.”
Amid water shortfalls in 2020, the warm, stagnant water in the marshes fostered the growth of the bacteria which produces avian botulism. The disease killed more than 60,000 ducks and shorebirds, according to one estimate. This year, a devastating drought has once again left birds at risk of an outbreak.
These overlapping crises are stirring up conflict in the Klamath Basin, one that reflects the rise of far-right extremism in America.
In May, irrigators belonging to the People’s Rights Oregon, Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll, bought land next to the headgates of the Klamath Project’s primary canal. People have planted protest signs, hosted conspiracy theorists and flown Trump 2024 flags. Asked if they were planning a repeat of 2001 – a year that saw federal marshal intervention and threats of armed insurrection, Nielsen told Jefferson Public Radio, “We’re gonna do what we gotta do.”
Despite the looming threat of violence, conflict isn’t inevitable.
The key to managing that scarcity, in Mount’s view, is expecting it and planning for it. “What’s lacking [in the Klamath Basin] is a good and durable plan that everyone has signed on to, even if they’ve signed on to it reluctantly,” Mount said. “And that’s still elusive in that basin.”
What that plan should entail is another point of contention and proposed solutions spark varying levels of controversy. Most agree about the need to restore salmon habitat along tributaries to the Klamath River. Fish populations will probably get a boost from removal of four dams along the Klamath River, which is expected to be completed by 2024. And then, there are the more fundamental – and controversial – proposals, like overhauling the Bureau of Reclamation and taking agricultural land out of production.
Mount believes the solution will inevitably include some combination of these ideas and will require stakeholders in the conflict to find common ground.
“There are too many people in the water business whose goal is to defeat someone else, and that is viewed as progress, if they have stopped something bad from happening,” he said. “It’s not progress until you get something good to happen.”
Ryan Loughlin contributed reporting to this story