“Nobody wins”: Drought is turning life in the US West Basin on its head

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TULE LAKE, Calif. (AP) – Ben DuVal knelt in a barren field near the California-Oregon border, picking up a handful of parched earth as dust devils swirled around him and birds darted between empty irrigation pipes.

DuVal’s family has farmed this land for three generations, and this summer he and hundreds of others who rely on a government-managed lake to clear their fields are getting no water at all for the first time.

While the farmland lies fallow, Native American tribes watch helplessly along the 407 kilometer long river that flows from the lake into the Pacific as fish, which are inextricably linked to their culture, draw closer to extinction.

This summer, a historic drought and its aftermath tore communities apart, drawing outside attention to a year-long water crisis. The competition for the water of the Klamath River has always been intense, but now it is simply not enough and everyone involved is suffering.

“Everyone depends on the water in the Klamath River for a living. This is the blood that binds us all, ”DuVal said of the competing interests. “Nobody will come out on top this year. Nobody wins. “

Those living the nightmare fear the extreme drought is a harbinger of global warming.

“The system is crashing … for the people in the Klamath Basin,” said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, which monitors massive fish deaths in the river. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Twenty years ago, when the water supply to the irrigation system was drastically reduced amid another drought, the crisis turned into a national rally for the political right and some protesters opened the main irrigation canal in violation of federal orders.

This time, many irrigation workers reject the presence of anti-government activists. Farmers in need of government help to stay afloat fear links to the far right could harm them.

Meanwhile, poisonous algae bloom in the main lake of the basin, and two nature reserves that are important for migratory birds are drying up.

Conditions have exacerbated a water conflict whose roots go back more than a century.

Starting in 1906, the federal government reconstructed a complex system of lakes, wetlands, and rivers in the 4 million acre Klamath River Basin to create tens of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland.

The Klamath Reclamation Project draws its water from the 248 square kilometer Upper Klamath Lake. But the lake is also home to sucker fish, which are central to the cultural and creation stories of the Klamath tribes.

In 1988, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed two species of sucker fish as endangered. The federal government must keep the lake to a minimum depth to support the fish – but this year, amid an exceptional drought, there wasn’t enough water to do so and to provide irrigation systems.

“Agriculture should be sustainable. There are too many people after too little water, ”said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes.

Since the Klamath tribes enforce their priority water rights to help suckle fish, there is no additional water for salmon downstream.

The Karuk tribe declared a state of emergency last month, citing climate change and the worst hydrological conditions in the Klamath River basin in modern history. Karuk tribal resident Aaron Troy Hockaday Sr. is a fourth generation fisherman but says he has not caught any fish in the river since the mid-1990s.

“I have two grandchildren who are 3 and 1 years old. I have a grandchild this fall, ”he said. “How can I teach them to be fishermen when there are no fish?”

The problems of the downstream tribes are exacerbated by hydropower plants blocking the path of migrating salmon.

For most years, tribes 200 miles southwest of the farmers where the river meets the sea ask the Bureau of Reclamation to release additional rushes from Upper Klamath Lake. The extra water will ease the outbreak of a parasitic disease that spreads when the water is low.

That year, the federal agency declined these requests.

Now the parasite is killing thousands of young salmon in the lower Klamath River, where the Karuk and Yurok tribes have lived with them for millennia. An average of 63% of fish caught in research traps near the estuary last month were dead.

“This is all unprecedented,” said Jamie Holt, chief fishing technician for the Yurok tribe. “Where do you go from here? When do you start having the bigger conversation about total unsustainability? “

Near the source of the river, some of the farmers who see their lives turned upside down by the same drought say that less water – but some water – would be better each year than the parched fields they have now. Some pelvic worries are attributed to a way of life that they also inherited.

“I know it’s easy to finish the project,” said Tricia Hill, a fourth generation farmer. “But sometimes the story that is being told doesn’t reflect how progressive we are here and how we want to make things better for all kinds. This individual species management does not work for the fish – and it destroys our community and harms our wildlife. “

DuVals daughter dreams of one day taking over the family business. But DuVal isn’t sure he and his wife Erika can keep the land if things don’t change.

“We had a plan to grow our farm and send my daughters to good college,” said DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. “And this plan becomes more and more unraveled with every bad water year.”

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