Klamath Tribes water call is a good first step

By ERIK MOLVAR Guest Writer  (Herald and News Article- May 3, 2017)


Erik Molvar is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, in Laramie Wyo., a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting western watersheds and wildlife.                      

“At Western Watersheds Project, we thank the Klamath Tribe for their wise and farsighted decision to guarantee sufficient water in the rivers above Klamath Lake to support rare and imperiled fishes and wetland plant communities.”

The Klamath tribes have shown great foresight and fortitude in exercising their senior water rights on Klamath River system to ensure sufficient instream flow for wetlands and fishes.

Nobody can dispute that the Klamath, Yahooskin, and Modoc peoples are “first in time, first in right” when it comes to water use in the upper Klamath Basin. They have lived here continuously for over a thousand years. Nobody gave the Klamath peoples the rights they now exercise — they have had them since time immemorial, and simply never surrendered these rights.

Their right to hunt, fish, and gather plants, as well as the water right that supports native fish populations and aquatic plants important to the tribes, has now been affirmed by our judicial system under the concept of “prior appropriation.” This framework was made up from the fanciful imaginations of frontier lawyers, allowing those who established the most senior water right would have first dibs on appropriating water from streams, rivers, and aquifers.

The Tribes’ call on the river has the potential to provide sufficient water to sustain populations of rare native fishes, and allow wetlands in the upper Klamath Basin sufficient water to support the growth of native plants important to the tribes.

Won’t solve everything

Left to their own devices, the ag industry certainly has not left enough water in the rivers for healthy watersheds, wetlands and fish populations. To this extent, the Klamath Tribe’s water call supports the health of rivers, lakes, and wetlands in the Upper Klamath.

The water that cannot be appropriated by ranchers in the Upper Basin may be pulled out of the river system anyway by irrigators farther downstream. So the ranchers’ loss becomes the farmers’ gain, and water levels in the Klamath River may still be insufficient to support cold water temperatures and healthy salmon runs father downriver.

The Klamath Tribe’s call on the river certainly won’t solve all the ecological problems in the Klamath River watershed.

There are dams that need removal to allow the passage of the salmon. There are riverside wetlands that need to be restored so they can filter out agricultural wastes from cropland runoff.

There is a need to allow downstream lakes and wetlands to fill with water so they can support migratory waterfowl and shorebirds: lake levels drop so low because of agricultural withdrawals that in some years the white pelican rookeries on islands in the middle of lakes become peninsulas connected to the lakeshore, allowing land-based scavengers to prey on defenseless eggs and chicks. There is much work to be done in restoring the full function of the ecosystem.

Land for water? No

It is well within the rights of the Klamath Tribes to exercise their tribal sovereignty. For neighboring communities to threaten an escalation in racism, or suggest that the tribes should relinquish one treaty right (water) to which they are entitled, in exchange for another treaty right (land) to which they are equally entitled, is unhelpful and divisive.

Recognizing the legitimacy of these rights, and supporting their exercise by the Klamath tribes in the service of healthy river systems, is a path forward for neighboring communities to break the cycle of mistreatment and retribution.

The Klamath Basin, and the river that flows out of it, are of great natural beauty and abundance. As demonstrated by the removal of dams along Washington’s Elwha River, nature is resilient. Salmon runs can reclaim their native spawning grounds, coastal ecosystems can thrive, and rivers can return to health and vitality once we remove the barriers to ecological recovery.

At Western Watersheds Project, we thank the Klamath Tribe for their wise and farsighted decision to guarantee sufficient water in the rivers above Klamath Lake to support rare and imperiled fishes and wetland plant communities. This is only one piece of the puzzle in terms of restoring the Klamath watershed, but it is an excellent first step.