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River of a Thousand Promises
Page 2

To begin to understand what happened in Klamath Falls last summer, you have to understand the Klamath irrigation project and how it has formed, and destroyed, life in the Klamath basin. Until the turn of the last century, the basin comprised 10.5 million acres of highly diverse landscapes, stretching from the Cascade Mountains hundreds of miles southwest to the coast of California. There were sagebrush hills, pine forests, marshlands, lakes, and high desert plateaus left over from the last ice age. The region was home to teeming populations of fish, birds, and wildlife, as well as several Indian tribes. But in the thinking of the time, the basin was nothing but "sunbaked prairie and worthless swamps."

In 1905, the Bureau of Reclamation was directed to "reclaim" the desert below Upper Klamath Lake. The bureau diked marshlands until they were dry enough to grow crops, and turned the water over to farmers for irrigation. The Klamath Project was a massive plumbing job. It cost $50 million and included seven dams and 1,400 miles of canals, drains, and ditches. It diverted rivers, drained lakes, and compacted wetlands. It is one of the most intricate manipulations of hydrology in the United States.

The heart of the Klamath Project is Upper Klamath Lake, at 22 miles long the largest lake in the Northwest. Filled by tributaries that feed off the snowpack in the Cascade Mountains, the lake in turn feeds the Klamath River, which flows mostly southwestward through Oregon and northern California for some 260 miles. In its natural state the lake rose with the spring runoff from the mountains and sank lower in the summer, but the Klamath Project breached a reef at its southern end to drain it lower yet for irrigation.

Construction of the Klamath Project took decades. Long before it was finished, the government began luring farmers with promises of land and water. From 1908 until after World War II, the feds granted parcels to more than 600 war veterans. It isn't an easy life, and the region attracted hardscrabble people: people who don't mind the plague of midges that rises out of the lake every fall and turns the sky dark. People who can take high elevation and short growing seasons. People who don't mind being miles from anywhere. Here they raise hearty but thirsty crops, such as alfalfa and potatoes, as well as sugar beets, mint, onions, and cattle.

As more people moved to the region, more marshland was converted -- and not just by the federal Klamath Project. Today, in the basin as a whole, more than 75 percent of the original natural wetland water storage is gone, and about 400,000 acres are devoted to agriculture. Last summer, visitors who had believed television accounts of a dust bowl were surprised to see numerous sprinklers running on green fields, fed by other irrigation systems or private wells. So many people have settled in the basin that there are as many farms drawing private water as there are Bureau of Reclamation customers.

While agriculture flourished, wildlife species that had evolved over centuries were ill-equipped to deal with the new reality. The Klamath River is the spawning bed of coho and chinook salmon. By the time the water works its way through the dams and fields to the river, however, it is too polluted and warm to support some of the native fish. Upper Klamath Lake is also home to two endangered species of fish that share an unfortunate name -- the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker, once food staples for the regional Indians. As the wetlands were drained and water quality in the lake began to suffer, so did the suckers. Finally, the project drains into the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge, the first waterfowl sanctuary in the country and the main wintering ground of one of the largest populations of American bald eagles in the lower forty-eight states.

Today, the Klamath is a system out of balance, where for decades the needs of the few have outweighed the needs of the many. Now that even the farmers have been hit by a water crisis, those who have been doing without enough for decades hope that next year, things will be different. But it remains an open question whether there can ever be enough water for everyone who lays claim.

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges

State of Oregon Klamath website

EcoNorthwest report

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OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council