Column: A miraculous story of fish and the Klamath Basin
"Last week, I listened to a story that is nothing short of miraculous.

The tale was of the Klamath River Project and the restoration agreements signed last month by tribal, government, power company, conservationist and agricultural interests to restore salmon runs by removing five hydroelectric dams. The storytellers were Troy Fletcher of the Yurok Tribe, Steve Kandra of the irrigated farmers, and D.C. Jackson, dam historian in a plenary session at the Environmental History conference in Portland.

The Klamath agreement launches the largest river-restoration project in the history of the United States, but that’s not the miraculous part.

The miracle is that this agreement came after decades of bitter battles between the irrigated farmers and the tribes and conservationists. The story runs deep in the arid West and actually starts in our own backyard, with the Newlands Project’s Truckee Canal, the irrigation project that launched the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Klamath Project began shortly after Newlands, diverting water to irrigate farmlands in Oregon and California, and to provide cheap electricity. But the dams blocked the salmon runs, depriving Klamath, Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes of their historic food staple. The long-simmering controversy came to a head in 2001, when drought compelled the federal government to close off irrigation to the farmers, honoring the tribal fishing rights only recently affirmed by the Supreme Court. The irrigated farmers went ballistic, organizing a symbolic “bucket brigade” to massive media attention, and even trespassing on federal land to divert water into the irrigation ditches—a federal crime that went unprosecuted.

Drought continued into the following year, and the feds flip-flopped, when then-Interior Secretary Gayle Norton allowed water to flow to the irrigation project first. This action caused a massive salmon die-off in the lower river, a catastrophe the stocks have yet to recover from. This time the tribes protested by shipping 75 pounds of dead salmon FedEx to Norton’s office in Washington, D.C. That got her attention."

Get the Story:
Jen Huntley: First, you have to talk (The Reno News & Review 3/25)