Klamath Basin drought: the Klamath River
This week, Think Out Loud has traveled to the Klamath Basin to have conversations with people affected by the severe drought in the region.
A month ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed to transfer the operating license for four dams on the lower Klamath River to a nonprofit whose sole purpose is to destroy those dams. Mark Bransom is the CEO of that nonprofit, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. We spoke with him at the Iron Gate dam in Northern California.
This week, Think Out Loud has traveled to the Klamath Basin to have conversations with people affected by the severe drought in the region. Karuk Tribal Council member Troy Hockaday has been dip net fishing on the Klamath river in Northern California his whole life. Now, he says, there aren’t enough healthy salmon to teach his grandchildren how to fish.
This week, Think Out Loud has traveled to the Klamath Basin to have conversations with people affected by the severe drought in the region. The Yurok Tribe’s homeland includes much of the Klamath River as it meanders through the redwoods of Northern California and enters the Pacific Ocean at Klamath, CA. The drought this year has led to one of the worst salmon die-offs on the river in recent memory, which has a huge impact on the tribe. We talk to Amy Bowers Cordalis, an attorney for the Yurok Tribe, and Barry McCovey, Fisheries Department Director for the Yurok Tribe, at the mouth of the Klamath River.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’ve been broadcasting from the Klamath Basin all this week. We started in Klamath Falls in the upper basin. It’s a high flat land, a patchwork of farms and wildlife refuges, many of which look parched in this historic drought year. Farmers and ranchers are saying they can’t survive another year like this one; the Klamath tribes are saying the same thing about native sucker fish. But as you go lower in the basin and head down the Klamath River, the existential fears turn from suckers and alfalfa to endangered salmon and that’s where we’re taking you today. We’re going to follow the Klamath River as it carves a curvy path through California all the way to the pacific, we’re going to start high up on a ridge overlooking what I have to say was a surprisingly large body of water. ‘We’re standing above the Iron Gate Dam right now. It’s an earthen dam with a huge reservoir backed up behind it. It’s a windy day and super sunny, probably 100 degrees. It might even be hotter if it weren’t a little bit smoky from various fires burning in the area. There are no people around here that we can see, but there are osprey and cormorants and seagulls and vultures flying over the gray green water. This is the last of four Klamath River dams that are slated for removal in the coming years. It’s going to be the largest dam removal project in U. S. History.’ We got back in the car and drove down to the base of the Iron Gate Dam. We met Mark Bransom there. He is the CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. That’s the nonprofit that was formed a couple years ago to oversee the removal of these four Klamath River dams. I asked him what he thought the area that’s now a reservoir, will look like once the dam that created it is removed in the coming years.
Mark Bransom: I try to envision naturally restored river environment, including the riparian area and the upland area along the river corridor. After the reservoirs are drawn down and completely gone, we anticipate that the river will re-establish itself in its historic channel. Part of our responsibility will be to follow the dam removal with a significant amount of restoration work. That includes both work in the channel, as well as replanting the riparian zone and the upland areas as well. I’m envisioning that over the course of a couple of decades, we should have a very healthy riparian area, which will be a mix of small plants and shrubs and trees that are growing, cottonwoods and willows and other native species that we will plant. But we also think that there’s going to be a significant amount of natural recruitment of vegetation that will naturally take hold to restore the river corridor.
Miller: Last month, federal regulators, they approved the transfer of the hydro electric license from PacificCorp to the nonprofit that you are in charge of, plus the states of Oregon and California. What does that actually mean?
Bransom: It’s a very significant step in the effort to get to dam removal. One of many important regulatory steps. So what it really means is that FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] concluded that the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, backed by the states, has all of the financial and technical and legal capacity to serve as licensee for all purposes. In other words, FERC is comfortable that the Klamath River Renewal Corporation is a safe bet to take the hydro electric license from PacificCorp, the current owner of an operator of the dams. Because FERC knows that our plan is not to use that license as a utility. We have no interest in being a utility for purposes of generating power. Our purpose is then to surrender that license back to FERC and get approval for the decommissioning plan, so these dams can be removed.
Miller: When do you think this thing is going to start to go down?
Bransom: Even before we can start the actual removal of the dams, we have about 6 to 7 months of early construction work that needs to be completed just to prepare to draw the reservoirs down, and then begin with the actual physical removal of the dams. So we’re hopeful that FERC can find a way to accelerate that schedule to allow us to initiate that construction and then be on the dams to initiate reservoir draw down in early 2023. Complete dam removal in 2023, and restoration into 2024, followed by compliance with all the permit terms and conditions for some period of time thereafter. But we’re going to do everything in our control to position us for a 2023 drawdown in reservoir drawdown and dam removal.
Miller: What impact do you think taking down these dams is going to have on the ecosystems of the water and the land above these dams?
Bransom: Yes, so again, the intent is to provide access to historic habitat for spawning species, such as the various runs of salmon that historically utilized this area. I’m not sure that we fully understand what the long term environmental implications will be for waters and land way upstream. But I will say that we’ve always maintained that the return of the fish is good for agriculture, as well as for the tribes and other communities that are interested in seeing a return of these fish runs. The agricultural communities are under tremendous regulatory pressure. They see a lot of water come down the river to offset some of the water quality impacts that result from the presence of the dam. And I’m fully convinced that once the dams are gone and the fish return, some of those regulatory pressures are going to be relieved. The agricultural community is going to benefit by being able to hold on to additional water that can be used for agricultural or other purposes, that today needs to be released down river to address the fish diseases and other water quality conditions that we have today, that we assume will be alleviated by removal of the dams.
Miller: You know, in the grand scheme here, whether we were looking from up above at the reservoir or down here at this big earthen dam, or the last couple of days when we were all throughout the Upper Klamath Basin looking at canals and irrigation systems, this is a gigantic human created infrastructure from a lot of it dating back 100 years, a grand time for especially white people of changing the landscape. And now we’re in this completely different time when this massive project is about taking down this human creation. I’m just curious what goes through your mind, when you look at this dam now and when you look at the river and when you imagine the future.
Bransom: I have a deep appreciation for the time that you’re referring to 100 years ago when this region did not enjoy the benefits of electrification and these dams had a significant impact on developing the rural area here. I come from a small rural community and I appreciate the things that infrastructure contribute to small rural economies and small rural communities. But you’re right, we are in a very different time and we now have a much better understanding of the environmental and social and cultural impacts, and implications of developing infrastructure like these dams. You’re standing here looking at the place where the road ends for salmon with regard to their upward migration. So for over 100 years, they’ve essentially been cut out from all of this additional habitat that lies above where we’re standing today at Iron Gate Dam. And so what I envision is a healthy restored ecosystem. To me, and many people will say that the project really is a salmon recovery project, but while I don’t disagree with that, I would simply offer a characterization that this, in my opinion, is a resiliency project. It is about introducing additional resiliency into this natural system to give those amazing salmon and other species a little bit a further toe hold in their natural environment. So they stand a little bit of a better fighting chance under changing circumstances. So I envision a fully restored system where these fish, these amazing salmon and other species have access to their historical lands, their spawning grounds. And in coming years we see fully restored and healthy fish runs because it’s important not only to the environment, but to the many communities that rely on the resources, the river for their livelihood and for their very lives in fact.
Miller: Mark Bransom, thanks very much for your time.
Bransom: You’re welcome. Nice to talk to you today Dave.
Miller: Mark Bransom is the CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. We talked to him at the base of the Iron Gate Dam. We wanted to hear directly from the people, he talked about,
the people whose lives and cultures are inextricably tied to these salmon. So we drove a windy but gorgeous two hours west to Happy Camp in the Coast Range. It was the first time in the whole week that there wasn’t smoke in the sky. We met Troy Hockaday in Happy Camp. He’s a council member for the Karuk Tribe. He took us down to the river. I asked him to describe what we were seeing.
Troy Hockaday: Today we’re sitting at the mouth to Indian Creek in Happy Camp, California. Indian Creek comes in the Klamath River as you can see right now. The water flows coming out Indian Creek right now is what you’d see about the end of August, middle of September. As you know, it’s very narrow, very shallow. This creek right here is the home of the spring salmon, which we have not seen up here since – actually just downstream here, a little ways – in 1994 was the last spring salmon ever caught and released. And I have not seen one back here since. I mean there are a few coming through, also the creek’s home of the the summer steelhead, winter steelhead, and the fall chinook. It’s one of the main territories for our fisheries right now. As you see, the fall chinook are gonna have a hard time getting up there to spawning grounds.
Miller: Why do you say that? I can’t see that. So what do you see that tells you that?
Hockaday: I can tell by just how low it is if you go up there and look, it’s only about six inches, eight inches. And those pools up under the bridge should be at least 4 to 5 ft deep right now and they’re not.
Miller: So we’re talking in the middle of July and you’re saying that this looks like what the water should look like in late August or early September?
Hockaday: Yes, just because of the drought waters and no water released from the dams up there right now. Earlier, this May, we had a big kill of our salmon releases up there. Our little fish, they’re going back. They bubbled up here on the river. I haven’t took the temperature in the river right here lately, but it should be about seven degrees right now. It should be colder than that at this time of year. We had no snow melt. We didn’t have no snow, because of the climate change. It’s just like the farmers up there. We’re working hard with them too, keep water for them because we also need cattle, potatoes and stuff to survive. But at the same time we need our culture to survive and our fish and everything belongs to our ceremonies that makes us alive to be here. Everybody’s hurting, it’s not just not us, it’s the farmers, it’s our communities, it’s our tribes. It all affects this water. Just this is our lifeline, the salmon and the river is our lifeline.
Miller: What are your memories of fishing when you were growing up?
Hockaday: Oh, I had some great memories. In the early seventies when I was little, say about 10, we go down to our fisheries, down it’s zones and the average good year, we’d never catch more than 1000 salmon to feed our people. You know, 5000 members. Still we were feeding our people, but nowadays we’re not even catching 10. You know, we’re barely catch 100 other, I think last year we didn’t catch 100 salmon for our people. We didn’t have enough salmon for our ceremonies and for our medicine people.
Miller: Let alone eating, let alone subsistence.
Millers: What kind of fishing do you do here?
Hockaday: We do traditional dip fishing. It’s with two fir poles with balls on the end. It looks like a snow cone. And we have a nice small net about four ft and we’ll go over some rapids, real rough, it’s called the Ishi Pishi Falls. Sometimes we put first ladders in there to get out to them and you dip into the whitewater and you hold on to them as much as kind of bring them in. It’s not like throwing the net across the river and letting the fish hit a gill net. This is totally different.
Miller: It’s more active …
Hockaday: It’s more active. It’s more dangerous.
Miller: Is it fun?
Hockaday: It’s a blast. I’ve been doing it since I was 10 years old and I’m 55 and I love it.
Miller: Do you still do it?
Hockaday: I still do it to this day in the fall. Yes. And it’s fun. I just hope I have the opportunity to teach my grandson who is three years old and I have another one coming in this October and I hope I’m still around to teach them what my dad and my great uncles taught me.
Miller: And that there are fish to do it.
Hockaday: And the fish to do with it. Yes. One thing about fishing for our fisheries, since I’ve been fishing down there, there’s only been like a handful of fishermen from the tribe, from certain families, that fish for everybody. Yes, people do have the right, but it takes time for the other fishermen that let you get out on the rocks, and that’s not just because you have the right to go out to the rocks. No, you’re out there to catch fish for people, and it’s a real danger sport. Not in my lifetime, but my dad’s lifetime. He said he saw high up, three people disappear and never come home. I fell in a couple times. It scared me. I got pulled in a couple times. It’s not fun. Your life flashes before your eyes, but when you get all down and everything, you got a sense of pride. You feel like you did something for your family. When I go down there in the fall, my first dipping days, I go down, I give everything away. I do not bring nothing home. So I have good luck for when I fish for myself.
Miller: You mean you give it away to members, elders?. How do you decide who to give it to first?
Hockaday: 90% time is probably who’s on top of the hill when we get to the top? There’s usually a handful of people are waiting for you to pack fish up to the top or they’ll send their grandkids down to the bottom and help get the fish out and we say whatever you can pack out, you can have. Then usually there’s some of the elders that can’t come down that way, we say, hey, we’re going fishing today. Would you like a salmon? How much would you like? When we come home we make sure they have those fish.
Miller: Because the fall run has been somewhat reliable.
Hockaday: Yes. But nowadays it’s bad. It’s real bad. We haven’t gave elders for about five years. We barely have fish for our ceremonies. We had a ceremony starting last weekend. It started, it’s called the salmon ceremony, down Clear Creek, which is down the road here a little ways. It just started last weekend, and we had no salmon for that ceremony.
Miller: What’s a salmon ceremony like without salmon?
Hockaday: It’s hard. Because back in the olden days as I was told growing up, nobody fished for salmon on the Klamath River [inaudible] ... whoever. We did not fish for salmon until the salmon hit Clear Creek. That gave time for the salmon to get far enough up the river so everybody can enjoy it.
Miller: So that was just built into the tradition was an understanding of sustainability and of community too. That all the different tribes, peoples that depended on salmon, they would let salmon go up river and only when they knew that they had gone far enough, would you fish yourselves?
Hockaday: Would just start fishing, yes. But somewhere along the line that has been forgotten and my goal as a tribal council member is to protect that last salmon in the Klamath River. And it’s for our tribal sovereignty to protect our fish. But also for generations for people on the community: our community here on the Klamath River, sportsmen fishermen. We get revenues to our motels, our restaurants, our cafes, our campgrounds. All depends on this river, our rafting, all depends on this river. Some of the rafting companies that are coming here now the water is so shallow, they don’t think at the end of July they’ll be able to raft, because there’s so many barriers, the rocks and stuff, they’ll be tearing up their canoes.
Miller: And even that is an economic hit to the tribe.
Hockaday: Big time. It’s all the communities. It’s not just the tribe. Living here and growing up here all my life, this is the one of the worst I’ve ever seen it. It’s sad.It’s heart failing to see this water like this. I mean if you don’t live here, you don’t see it. You don’t understand why we’re fighting for the water. You don’t understand why we’re trying to work with the farmers. You don’t understand how we’re working with the fish and our way of life, unless you’ve been here and seeing it firsthand. Yes, you see pictures in the great Klamath River with the rapids and the rafting. But it’s not like that nowadays. When they put the dams in back in the sixties, it was a good idea. But now the effects of having those dams in are showing up. It’s showing up big and fast. They didn’t look at the long-term effects, what would happen to the river where they put them in. You know, it was just big business. Let’s get some water, let’s get some power going. Let’s go. That was the generation back then. They weren’t looking at the long effect, how it was gonna affect the people in the future. So now, as us, growing up here, our lives, now that we’ve got to learn how to react and change it back to where it used to be, or some way we can get back to normal. I mean, we’re looking at another 10 years after the dams come [out] to get the river to flow back like it used to be
Miller: After the dams come out you’re saying it’ll be another 10 years. Well so let’s dig into this, because we actually just came from the Iron Gate Dam. And we saw the big reservoir above it and then the river below it. What’s your vision for what, how life is going to be different for you and for salmon when the dams come out.
Hockaday: It’s like some of the creeks up above the down there, those are all spring fed. That’s what this river is like. The river’s all spring fed that goes into Klamath Lake. That’s 90% of our cold water that feed the fish. And how the salmon used to go up there a long time ago. We need the cold water which kills the Shasta disease.
Miller: It’s one of the diseases that’s devastating the native salmon run.
Hockaday: This year, it’s pretty bad, because we started hitting 100 degree weather back in May and here we’re in July. So the last part of June and July, we’ve been over 100 degrees for a month. You’ve got constantly slow water, no rapids, no oxygen getting into the water, heats up the water. That Shasta disease grows up and down the river. So that’s why it killed a lot of our fries this spring, trying to get back.
Miller: When you saw that huge fish kill this spring, what was going through your mind?
Hockaday: It’s not gonna affect us until three or five years from now. We won’t feel the full effect because those are the fish, they’re supposed to come back. And let’s say, outta the top of my head, I’m gonna say if there’s ten hatchlings heading down the river to go to the ocean, we don’t expect maybe two to come back to the Klamath River. So there’s our odds then, you took away from the odds of fish returning back to the Klamath.
Miller: You talked about wanting to work with farms in the upper basin, and we came from there and some of the farmers we talked to were upset. And the way they saw it, they’re getting little to no water this year and they complained about the fact that water’s going downriver specifically to help salmon. I’m curious what you see as a sustainable future for all the different people in this basin. I mean, what do you see as the way forward?
Hockaday: We have to come together and work together. We all survive on this river and there is enough water if we do it correctly. I mean right now it’s bad because it’s a big bad drought for the last two years. But we’ve all got to make compromises. We can’t sit there and let the government tell us what to do if they don’t live here. We live here. The farmers live here. The Native Americans live here. The communities of Happy Camp, Orleans, and Weitchpec, we all live here. We are here every day. We know what’s right for this river. We’ve been here for generations, thousands of years. So it’s hard for them just to give you $10 million and say, hey, go fight for your water rights and then give me $10 million to fight for my water rights. So we’re fighting each other for the same cause. And until that stops, nothing’s gonna be done.That’s just common sense.
Miller: How hopeful are you right now about the future?
Hockaday: Well, if the dams come out, and I hope and pray because we’re on track, I’m 100% sure that we’ll have salmon in the upper basin. The Klamath Indians up there will have salmon for the first time in 70 years. It’s gonna take a while. It’s gonna take some help, with us protecting those fish, getting them up to the spawning grounds, making sure the spawning grounds are not disturbed. Hopefully, in 2023 those dams will be out of there. Starting 2024 we can start putting beaver dams back in the creeks, back in Scott River, back in Horse Creek. That all comes together. Beaver dams wash out every Fall so you’re not blocking it, it’s not staying there so it can’t get stable. It provides good spawning grounds for fish, a good swimming hole, and a good place to go camping. All those things will come back. It’s gonna take a while. And I hope I’m alive to see it. I really do. I’m 55, 10 years from now I’ll be 65 but I would love to see it when I’m in my 80s. I would love to go down in the Fall, sit up on the bank like the old people do now, and have my grandson bring me my fish. That’s what I’m looking at. To have a smile on my face saying, ‘Hey, I did something for you. Now, it’s your turn to keep it going.’
Miller: Troy Hockaday, thank you.
Hockaday: Thank you for coming.
Miller: Troy Hockaday is a member of the Karuk Tribal Council.
This is the last day of our week of shows from the Klamath Basin. The final stop on our tour was Klamath, California. That’s where the Klamath River flows into the Pacific Ocean. It’s part of the ancestral homeland of the Yurok Tribe. We met up with Barry McCovey there. He is the Fisheries Department Director for the tribe. We walked down a ramp and stood on a dock overlooking a wide expanse of water. The river broadens out as it meets the ocean and a huge sandbar juts out across most of the bay, so only a narrow channel of river actually flows into the salt water. Fog hugged a green hillside in the distance. Fishing boats were tied to the dock; they bobbed gently in the water. I had Barry describe where we were.
Barry McCovey: We’re here at the mouth of the Klamath River, just before the river flows out into the Pacific Ocean. This place means a lot to everyone, not just Yurok people and not just people who depend on salmon. This is a really important place here. For the Klamath River, it’s where everything either begins its trip up the river here or ends its trip down the river here. And so it’s a really important place in that respect. A big part of the tribe’s fishery happens here. When we do have a good sizable amount of salmon returning to the river, this is kind of the epicenter of the tribal fishery. This is where all the action happens. In years where we’re fortunate enough to have enough fish to where we can provide tribal members with a commercial fishery, this is kind of where it all happens. So a lot of the infrastructure that you see around here, the hoists and the docks and the processing plant and the boat ramp, all that stuff is related to the fishery. This place can be really exciting and there can be hundreds of people and there can be a lot happening here. Unfortunately, there haven’t been enough salmon coming up the river in the past six or seven years for the tribe to have a commercial fishery, a successful commercial fishery. In fact, there hasn’t been enough salmon coming up the river to really even feed the tribe. It seems pretty sad and barren here now. And that’s because it kind of is, compared to what it has been in the past and what it could be and hopefully will be again in the future.
Miller: What do salmon mean to the Yurok Nation?
McCovey: I get asked that question a lot and the answer that I generally give has to do with our evolution as Yurok people here on the river. Co-evolving with salmon and them being integral to our survival. Knowing that, since the beginning of time, those fish have been sustainable and we’ve always counted on them to provide sustenance and power to us. We’re one and the same. The same can be said about the Klamath River itself. It’s the vessel that the fish need and it’s the vessel that we need. So the river and the fish are so important to Yurok people. It’s said it’s like the air we breathe and Yurok people can’t live without salmon or the Klamath River. That’s how intertwined into our identity the salmon and the river are.
Miller: What are the various ways in which life has gotten very hard for salmon?
McCovey: Well, the list is long. Salmon are resilient species and they’ve dealt with catastrophe throughout their history here on the Klamath; natural disasters, volcanoes, things of that nature. And they’ve always rebounded and been okay and made it through that type of natural phenomena. When Europeans came, the toll was exacerbated on fish -- and the river. The damage is done to the river and then that in turn affects the fish. With the exception of overfishing, the overfishing that occurred here in the Klamath and out in the ocean. But, in general, a lot of the problems that we’re seeing now [are those resulting from] damage that’s been done to the river.
It started with gold mining. For many, many decades there was extreme gold mining; hydro mining where they would blow a hillside down, dredge mining where they would move the entire channel of a tributary to the Klamath or even the main stem of the Klamath River. Just destroying habitat, destroying spawning grounds. Then dams went in on the upper Klamath and basically cut the basin in half. Just, in the blink of an eye, from one fish run to the next, they were no longer able to access hundreds and hundreds of miles of habitat that they had been accessing for millions and millions of years. Another severe impact was water diversions. [For example,] this is the Klamath Irrigation Project. Water isn’t just diverted out of basin, it’s diverted within basin to irrigation projects. That water isn’t allowed to flow down the river when it needs to be in the river. We got logging, the timber industry came and did a lot of damage on the up-slope. There’s other forest management issues that are hard on the river and hard on fish. Fire management is a big one. For millennia, thousands and thousands of years, Indigenous people in the Klamath Basin managed the uplands and managed the forests with prescribed fire. That came to an end. So now, instead of low intensity, beneficial wildfires, we see these catastrophic, deadly, destructive wildfires in the basin and that causes excess sediment.
Miller: It’s like you can tell the history of the last couple 100 years by talking about salmon.
McCovey: Yes. Yeah.
Miller: One of the big efforts [for] the Yurok Tribe and, if I’m not mistaken, along with the Hoopa and Karuk as well, is major restoration projects within the river. And this is before the four dams are expected to come out in the coming years. What have you already been doing to try to make habitat better for salmon?
McCovey: Yeah. So, the tribes of the basin, along with partners, have been working tirelessly to restore salmon habitat in the Klamath Basin. We do small-scale things, anything from fixing the mouth of a creek so that fish have more access to cold water during the summer months when the river is too warm -- that could be as simple as moving some rocks around. We do things like logjams and beaver dam analogues, moving up; and then all the way up to complete stream channel restoration, creating new stream channels in the upper Trinity River. Whatever it takes, whatever the method is to restore habitat, we’re gonna try it.
Miller: What’s restoration after dam removal going to be like?
McCovey: It’s a large scale project. We’ve already started the initial stages of this project. That’s collecting seeds and propagating plants that will be planted in the footprint of the reservoirs that will be drained. [Those plantings will help] to stabilize the banks. The Yurok Tribe has already started this process of collecting seeds and propagating native plants to revegetate the footprints of the reservoirs. And then there’s gonna be a lot of mechanical restoration on the tributaries that enter the Klamath River in the reservoir reach. We’re really excited and we really are looking forward to that opportunity to be able to work on restoring that section of river because it’s been lost for so long.
Miller: And literally ‘planting the seeds’ for the future there.
McCovey: We’re literally gonna be planting the seeds for the future in the reservoirs. Where the toxic lakes now sit, we will be planting seeds for the future, yeah. It’s an amazing time. And I can’t wait. I’m still cautiously optimistic. I want to see excavators excavating and taking material off of the dam, and then I’ll be like, okay, this is real.
Miller: One of the ways I’ve been thinking about habitat restoration and the massive efforts to bring salmon back in numbers anywhere close to their old ones is a kind of terrible race. On the one hand, you have efforts that you and others have been doing. And on the other, you have just the plummeting numbers, the juvenile salmon die-off this year, but just plummeting numbers year after year now. Do you have time?
McCovey: I’m optimistic that the resiliency of these fish will bring them through, if we can keep them on life support and get through this tough time. And [if] we can build in some resiliency in the habitat and in the basin, the fish will respond. They’ve always been there for us and I don’t see that changing. We just have to be there for them.
Miller: Am I right that a major signing ceremony for the removal of the dams, that project that’s still ongoing, happened right up here?
Miller: Were you here for that?
McCovey: I was, yeah.
Miller: What was going through your mind?
McCovey: I was optimistic, but I was also cautious. Cautiously optimistic, I guess. I was at another signing ceremony at the Oregon state capitol; I was at that one also. I understand that this is a long process. We have to take the long approach. We understand that this is going to take time. This basin isn’t going to get fixed overnight and dam removal, we know, isn’t one big fix that’s gonna solve all the problems. But it’s a major move in the right direction. And we’re very proud of the work we’ve done and the work that others have done to get to this point. But we understand that the job’s not done. And, for us, this job will never be done. Because we’re about restoring balance and then maintaining balance and it’s hard work. Even if we restore this river to what it once was, we’re still gonna have to maintain that balance. And there’s always gonna be other interests in the basin come and go and we will have to fight really hard for this water. Water is becoming a pretty hot commodity in the West and we understand that. We’re here for the long run. We don’t have anywhere else to go and we’re not going anywhere. And so we will always be here fighting for this river.
Miller: Thanks very much for taking us down to the dock.
McCovey: Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Miller: That was Barry McCovey. He is the Fisheries Department Director for the Yurok Tribe.
We’re going to end our show today, and our whole week in the Klamath Basin, with Amy Bowers Cordalis. She’s an attorney for the Yurok Tribe and a principal at the Ridges to Riffles Conservation Fund. The nonprofit works on Native American cultural and natural resource issues. She took us to a house overlooking the estuary and then we walked down the driveway a bit to a gentle incline where there were stones and old pieces of timber in the grass. I asked her what we were looking at.
Amy Bowers Cordalis: We are in the village of Requa. This is one of the original Yurok villages and we are standing in the former site of my family’s house. This was the house of La’yeq.
Miller: Oh, this is the foundation?
Bowers Cordalis: This is it all right here. So, where we’re standing right now, right over here would have been the front door and then you would have walked in and there would have been this upper layer here. Then, inside here, it would have been dug out lower and there would have been the fire pit and the four walls. You can kind of see the backside there and these were some of the planks. But I brought you here because the family has always been here. Right.
Miller: You haven’t even described what we’re looking at when we look away from this hillside and look down, which is quite a view.
Bowers Cordalis: It’s the mouth of the Klamath. Yeah, that’s it.
Miller: What else is there?
Bowers Cordalis: I mean really. Right? I mean you think about the power in the convergence of the Pacific Ocean and the Klamath River that has come from and is ending its beautiful journey from Crater Lake, the Wood, the Williamson, the Sprague Rivers. It all comes down and then flows into the ocean and so it’s just a very strong, powerful place of connection. And also, when we think about humans and our own world and what we need to survive, I think about the power of the ecosystems in the estuary and water, obviously. We’re looking at a lot of water right now.
Miller: What have the last four or five months been like for you as a member of this nation and as a lawyer?
Bowers Cordalis: Difficult. As a member of the nation, we started getting really bad forecasts in terms of rain and what we thought was going to come. So we knew that we were headed into a bad year and then it just got worse and worse as time progressed. We kept praying for rain. We kept asking for rain. No rain came. And then, the fish started dying, right? And we know how to stop the baby fish from dying. We need more water to flush out fish disease. So we started advocating for that and ultimately didn’t get any water.
Miller: When you say, we started observing the baby fish dying. Did you come down here? I mean, you saw the die-offs yourself?
Bowers Cordalis: My family was just fishing last weekend. We’re fishing for the adult salmon and we were gill netting and when we were checking gill nets, we pulled up a few inch-long baby salmon. That’s kind of how it’s been, people out on the river fishing and there’s just baby dead fish in the water. So when you’re out there, they come up, you catch them. So it’s very real. Yeah, it’s very, very real. And that’s incredibly hard for us to watch, knowing we did everything that we could to advocate for that water and we still didn’t get it. And there’s nothing else you can do to protect those fish. And I think one of the hardest things, and this kind of goes back to my experience as both tribal member and lawyer, is we advocated as hard as we could. And when you fail, that is heartbreaking. But then you also understand the implications as a lawyer and looking at this from a law perspective. It’s a very significant injustice because the tribe’s fishing rights require fish. You have to have fish to exercise the right to fish. And the tribal fishing right is based in the treaties and the executive orders which create the supreme, senior water rights, fishing rights. They’re the supreme law of the land and so they should have been protected. So it’s this great injustice, not only from an environmental perspective, environmental justice type perspective, racial justice type perspective, but it’s also a biological catastrophe. And a cultural catastrophe on top of that.
Miller: You have a six year old?
Bowers Cordalis: I have a, well he just turned nine. I have a nine year old, a five year old and a one year old. All boys.
Miller: How do you talk to your five year old and your nine year old about these issues?
Bowers Cordalis: An example, we went out fishing in maybe late May and had set a net and were hoping to catch some Spring salmon. We put the net in the water, spent the afternoon fishing, checked the net and there were no fish. So there was no fish to be caught. And so my five year old, Keane, asked me, “Mom, why aren’t there any fish in the river?” And of course I know there’s no fish in the river because there is such a small percentage of the Spring run left that the likelihood of actually catching anything is really small because there’s not a lot of fish there. But I don’t want to say that to him because I want him to inherit the river that I did, which was in much better condition when I was coming of age. And one of the things that was sort of a great sense of pride and legacy and excitement was being able to go down to the river and catch fish. You just had so much fun and you knew you were going to put your net in the water and you were going to get to fish and you would catch this slimy thing and the river’s healthy. And my view of the river growing up was that it was this healthy place that I could go to for what I needed. I want him to know the river that way. And he’s too young to, I don’t know, to understand otherwise. So, when he asked me why there weren’t any fish in the river, I just said, “Well, sometimes fishing that way and you just keep trying.” Because I want him, at this point, to have those informative experiences on the river of understanding its bounty and creating his relationship in a way that demonstrates the power and gives the due respect that this place deserves.
Miller: What’s your vision for a sustainable way forward?
Bowers Cordalis: I think we really have to ask, what does sustainable agriculture look like at the top of the basin? And what does sustainable water use look like? The status quo is not working for anybody. That’s evident in the status of all of our communities. The farmers aren’t doing well, we’re not doing well. I would argue the communities in between, too, are suffering. So continuing this current management regime where the project is over 200,000 acres, the river is essentially getting the bare, bare minimum flows just required to keep it on life support. That’s not working for anybody. So, what we’re interested in is figuring out partnerships and programs and agreements to help transition from status quo to sustainability. And I think the politics of the basin right now, with some of the more extreme conservative folks being there now, just makes it even worse. One of the reasons I wanted to take you here is because I think it’s really important that we’re in this place where Yurok people came from. And how we would live is, from this house, we would go down there and we would fish. There were fish in the river all year around. So you would have what you needed. We had water, the river was healthy, there were fish. And when the reservation was created, all of those rights were reserved, invested in federal law. The first promise that the Federal Government made to us, which was one of its first promises made to any entity, was that we could continue that life-way. That we had protected, federally reserved, federally protected water rights, fishing rights. Those rights are supreme to the irrigators and just because they’ve laid dormant for how long doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. We’re at a time where there’s a lot of racial reconciliation, environmental justice happening and we can’t continue, as a nation, to ignore that these historic rights exist. That’s just not the path forward. So we sort of need to just get on with it. And stop making these arguments of we own all the water or we have all these state-based rights. Sure, you have a state-based right, but it’s subject to federal law and the federal government has to stay good to one of its first promises it made with the Indigenous people. And particularly with my family.
Miller: Given that you have the law on your side now, that your rights, your fishing rights connected to the survival of salmon, come first, what incentive do you have to compromise?
Bowers Cordalis: We always ask ourselves first, ‘What do the fish need? What does the river need?’ So we always start with that, in terms of any advocacy strategy. I think, where there [can be] compromise is that, right now, the river is super unhealthy, because of the dams, because of all the runoff from the project, the agricultural runoff, because of bad habitat throughout the whole basin. There are all kinds of things that are making the river sick. We’ve used the land from here all the way to the very, very headwaters as sort of an industrial machine and we haven’t taken care of any of the ecosystem. So when you start putting the pieces back together and making it more healthy -- dam removal for example -- that is going to have tremendous ecological benefit to the whole river system. That’s where I think there is room for changes in water management, changes in water use that allow us some management flexibility. I hear the narrative from the irrigators and your guys’ questions like “it’s us versus them” or “what’s the compromise” or “they’ve won” and we don’t see it that way at all. We see it as, “Okay. We’re all here. It’s 2021. How do we make this sustainable?” So that’s my point; when we start taking care of the river, and I mean the tributaries, above upper Klamath Lake, the river starts getting more healthy and then we can have some flexibility about management.
Miller: In the coming years, it looks like four dams on the Klamath River are going to be taken down and restoration work, that’s already been going on for years, will accelerate, above and below those dams. If that happens, and we come back here and visit you in your great grandparents and grandparents place, your family land, what do you want us to see? What do you want to be able to show us 15 years from now, 20 years from now?
Bowers Cordalis: I love that question because it’s essentially what the previous generations of my family would have seen from this exact spot. So looking out into the estuary, I want to be able to see Yurok people fishing. I want to see the boats, [each] with a gill net attached to it. And I want to see multiple generations of a family sitting in the boat, or camping along this river bar with a fire and their fish camp. And I want to see the kids pull out a fish, catch it and then have the dad or the uncle or the mom or the aunti show them how to clean it and put it in ice so that it’s all taken care of. I want us to have that opportunity of doing what my ancestors have always done. So I would want to see it as just a healthy ecosystem.
Miller: Thank you so much for taking us here.
Bowers Cordalis: Like, wow, thank you for coming. It’s a pleasure.
Miller: Amy Bowers Cordalis is an attorney for the Yurok Tribe and a principal at the Ridges to Riffles Conservation Fund. Thanks so much to everybody we talked to this week. Everyone we talked to shared their stories and struggles and hopes for the Klamath Basin with patience and generosity. You can see pictures of a lot of the people we talked to on our website. opb.org/thinkoutloud.
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