Disappearance and Return on the Klamath River

By Katharine Blake McFarland

408px-Klamath_river_CaliforniaLast weekend I slept in the back of my car by a stream in the Klamath River Basin, a territory that stretches across the top of California and into Southern Oregon. This is how you camp when you don't have a tent, and it still does the trick. You still get to watch for shooting stars and you still wake up in the cold and the mist, with no one around for miles.

The Klamath River itself is a river upside down. Like most rivers, it flows North to South, but unlike most rivers, which begin as trickles high up in the mountains, the Klamath begins in farmland and then winds its way down to the mountainous Pacific coast. In other words, the terrain gets wilder and higher as the river runs south. In the droughty state of California, the Klamath's 266 miles of water are sought after like the gold once buried below its banks. Indian tribes, farmers, fishermen, conservationists—and at one point, even, Dick Cheney—have all thrown down the gauntlet over the river. Meanwhile, coho salmon, Chinook salmon, and stealhead trout follow their migratory patterns upstream as they've done for thousands of seasons; but fewer and fewer make the journey each year.

Seven thousand years ago, before the logging and lawsuits and fish kills, when the river's waters were cooler than they are now and cleaner than they'll likely ever be again, salmon were called ney-puy. Yurok Indians built their villages along the river's banks from keehl (fallen red wood trees), used dentalia shells, like tiny white elephant tusks, for money, and danced the u pyue-wes and mey-lee (White Deerskin dance and Brush dance). The first white settlers to meet the Yuork tribe in the early 19th century were fur traders, interested in the territory for its beavers. But interest outpaced supply, and soon both beavers and fur traders disappeared. This was the first time the river's ecology changed because of humans: beaver dams and ponds tempered the river's winterfloods and created wetland habitats for the Northern Spotted Owl and other animals; without them, flooding caused erosion and wetlands dried out.

6a019b011433ee970d01a73da2dc79970d-150wiWhere wetlands and beaver ponds used to be, meadows grew, particularly in the upper basin, in southern Oregon and the top of California, where the land evens out. So when gold miners arrived to mine the Klamath, as they arrived almost everywhere up and down the coast, some found gold and some found rich soil and vast meadowlands on which to lay down their farms. By the time early-model steamboats chugged into the upper basin lakes, three quarters of the Yurok Tribe had been killed by Forty-niners or disease. Farmers dammed the river to irrigate their fields and federal troops marched the surviving Yurok people onto reservation lands, where Yurok children were shipped away to white missionary schools, and Yurok words, like the beavers, began to disappear. The White Deerskin dance slipped out of memory—the feel of a dream whose story stays just out of reach.

Peter Moyle is a biologist and professor at UC Davis who's been studying California freshwater fish for more than forty years, and disappearance is something he thinks about a lot. As I learned from reading Moyle's California WaterBlog, of the 122 native species of freshwater fish in California, 100 can be found only or mainly in the state. So when Moyle's studies predict extinction for more than 80 percent of California's native fish by 2100, the loss looms large.

The fish of the Klamath are an anadromous species, which means they spend most of their lives in the sea but return to fresh water to spawn. Herein lies the importance of the Klamath to fish: it provides the mating ground, birthplace, and environment in which young fish spend their early months and sometimes years. Herein, too, lies the species' vulnerability: anadromous salmonids have “complex life histories,” (as I read in a study by Rebecca Quinones—a startlingly poetical phrase amidst the dry and wordy landscape of scientific research), which means their survival depends on a confluence of factors and timing—water temperature, flow, depth, and season. As the cold, clear waters of the Klamath are changed by gold mining, cattle grazing, timber harvest, dams and the introduction and inter-breeding of hatchery-born fish—the ecology required by the anadromous species' particular life history falters.

To put the scale of loss in perspective, about thirty years ago, Moyle and a colleague noticed fewer coho salmon in the Eel River watershed than seemed normal. They surmised that no one was paying attention to the coho, and conducted a survey of the species that found fewer than 30,000 still spawning in California streams (only 5,000 of which were likely of wild origin rather than hatchery-born). Looking back as far as scientific records allowed, these numbers represented a 90 percent decline in population. The findings prompted the State to conduct its own study, which in 1996 earned coho salmon a spot on the endangered species list. But induction to the list failed to halt the decline, and according to numbers from the California Department of Fish and Game, between 2008 and 2010, only 500 to 3000 adult coho returned to California streams each year. This amounts to another 90 percent decline since 1996. Disappearance, as Moyle knows, is a process that begins before it's noticed and finishes after it's too late.


Oncorhynchus kisutch (coho salmon)

But when I speak to Moyle on the phone, he isn't gloomy. His voice has an energetic, pleasant lilt, and when he talks about salmon and the Klamath river, he speaks like a man in love with his work. It's a particular sound, that long-term devotion, vast knowledge, and continued curiosity. I ask him if he'd been involved with the river in 2001 and 2002, when the Klamath saw one of the largest fish kills in U.S. history. “Yes,” he says, “I was one of the scientists trying to figure out what was going on.” In this case, “what was going on” doesn't refer to the causes of the die-off, but rather to the sequence of events that preceded it.

Though there's no short version of this story, summary will have to do: four big hydroelectric dams redirect water from the upper Klamath to farmers' fields in southern Oregon and northern California. Like the fish, these farmers rely on the water to survive (especially in drought years, which 2001 happened to be), but their respective interests compete (and the words “survival” and “reliance” have different connotations from salmonid to human). Scientists saw the writing on the wall—there wasn't enough for everyone—and argued that continued irrigation would violate the Endangered Species Act. The state complied with the scientists but the farmers fought back. That's how Vice President Cheney got involved. Cheney got the National Academy of Sciences to issue their own study, refuting claims that fish needed undammed waters. The government reversed its decision and in March 2002, water flowed back into the fields. River heights reached record lows and temperatures reached record highs and by September 2002, tens of thousands of rotting salmon washed up on the Klamath banks. Fisherman brought lawsuits, and a large-scale movement to completely remove the four big dams followed. As of now, the dams are set to be gone within the next 20 years.

Moyle says removing the dams will eventually help the river and the fish, but he sounds skeptical about the 20-year time frame. “It's a political question,” he says: “no one wants to pay for it.” This dose of realism lends a credibility to the ideas Moyle does find promising, the most recent of which presents the reason for my call: a partnership between the Yurok Tribe and the environmental group, Western Rivers Conservancy, to buy back portions of the Klamath River from Green Diamond Resource Company, a timber business that builds California decks out of Redwood trees. I first learned about the project from Moyle's blog, and his enthusiasm carries over the phone, too.

In 2011, the partnership completed the first purchase—22,000 acres—and in 2013 they closed on the second—8,489 acres—over half of which comprises the Blue Creek watershed, one of the most important parts of the river. Blue Creek is special, Moyle explains, because of its perpetual fogginess. The fog belt shields the creek from the effects of climate change that cause warming in other portions of the river. Moyle predicts that the foggy creek will remain cool for the next 50 to 100 years, creating a natural refuge for fish making their way upstream to spawn. So the purchases create a sanctuary for endangered fish, and for all the animals that live on Blue Creek, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth. And for the Yurok Tribe, which remains the largest Indian tribe in California and whose people live in poverty at a rate that far outpaces the state average, the deal signals a return. A return to the land they once knew as home.

The deal is innovative because it aligns various human and animal interests. But its procedural components are creative, too. WRC plans to pay back a loan from the Packard Foundation through the sale of carbon offsets–where companies can pay for reductions in carbon dioxide gases elsewhere to offset their own emissions—and sustainable forestry practices that will spur re-growth of the Klamath's woodlands. And to attract private investors and foundations, they used an opportunity called the New Markets Tax Credit program, which offers investors a federal tax credit for money they put into businesses or development projects in the country's poorest communities. Its use by WRC might differ slightly from what its bi-partisan authors first imagined in 2000 when it passed; it was, back then, attached to the renewal of bombed-out urban areas. But this is what innovation offers at its best: a bigger door, a wider reach of good. It only makes me a little sad that Congress might not pass such a program today, since bi-partisan efforts remain scarce, but I'm grateful it passed thirteen years ago.

Disenchantment with Congress, or any form of government at all, is a trait common among people living in the Klamath basin. Hand-painted signs dot routes 3 and 5 almost as frequently as American flags—”No-Bama,” “No Monument,” “Stop the Klamath Dam Scam.” People are angry, angry at each other, and you can feel it, even at Grandma's House, a little diner in Yreka where I had the best pancakes I've ever had after car-camping by the stream (Grandma was notably unwelcoming to the likes of obvious interlopers).

All of which brings the Klamath conservancy project into clearer light as an anomaly, a blessing. Though the history of land stays soaked in blood and greed and bitterness continues to grow like poppies by the roadside, the Yurok tribe returns to their ancient village sites along Blue Creek. As the Northern Spotted Owl calls out at night and the mist hangs heavy in morning, here by a stream of the Klamath River, disappearance has given way to return.