Klamath Crisis:  Communities in Conflict

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An Overview by Jessica LeClaire and Sydney Micek

 

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The Class

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        Over the course of 5 days, we were exposed to an abundance of information regarding sustainability in Klamath Falls. We spoke with members of the Klamath Tribe, local stakeholders, bank officials, lawyers, and many more important members of the community. Speaking with so many different people gave us an opportunity to hear a wide range of different perspectives regarding the many issues in the community, in particular, the ongoing issues surrounding water. 

 

The Fish

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The Suckerfish have always been an important species to the Native American Tribes in Klamath Falls.  Not only have they been important to the tribes as a source of food, but as a spiritual connection to the Natives’ Creator.  The Natives of Klamath Falls have lived off salmon and suckerfish since the beginning.  Each year after the first snow in March, the Klamath Tribes hold their C'wam ceremony.  In today's ceremony, only three suckers are caught. The tribe gathers and elders pray for the fish. Two of the C'wam are put back in the water and one is burned in a fire. To the tribes "it's a symbolic act; if you give something back to the Creator, he'll make it more plentiful for you," (Breitler).  The Klamath Tribes once depended on the fish as a primary source of food and the fish have supported Natives for millennia. 

        In 1864, a treaty was made allowing the Klamath Tribes to reserve their water rights in exchange for 20 million acres of land (Breitler).   According to Allen Foreman, forty years later the government invited farmers to the basin and failed to tell them about the tribe’s water rights (Breitler).  As the farmers began using the land and water, the Natives were still depending on those resources as well. There became too many people using too little resources.

A picture of a Short Nosed Sucker Fish

 

 

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In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put both the Shortnose and Lost River Suckerfish on the list of endangered species (US Fed News).  Once placed on the endangered species list, the suckerfish became the enemy and known as bottom-feeding worthless fish to farmers, and other non-Natives.  “Under the ESA, once a species has been federally listed as endangered, its alleged needs must come before the needs, rights and property of individual Americans, no matter what the cost; in this case, the allegedly threatened fish takes precedence over families,” (Wright).

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The Bucket Brigade

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There was a drought in 2001 that caused water levels to be low and

a court decision was made to shut off the irrigation water.  Many

farmers in the Klamath area are almost totally dependent on irrigation. 

Once the court’s decision to stop irrigation was announced, many of the

farmers launched protests (NASA).  As more was being done to protect

the fish, the community became outraged and felt that they, the

 agricultural community were becoming endangered.

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The community tried to reduce the value of the fish so that it no longer made sense to protect them.

“The Klamath drought is a true crisis, and perhaps a catalyst for a serious reexamination of the Endangered

Species Act. Put a picture of that little farm girl with the plaintive sign, ‘We need water’ up against a shot of a

slimy sucker fish, and for many people it's not even a close call,” (The Klamath Dust Bowl).  Protesting of the

fish was seen on signs within the agricultural communities main protest event, which was held in the form of a bucket brigade. 

 

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A bucket brigade as defined as “a method for transporting items where items are passed from one stationary person to the next; more specifically, it refers to a method of firefighting before the advent of hand pumped fire engines, whereby firefighters would pass buckets to each other to extinguish a blaze,” (Wikipedia).  However, this bucket brigade was symbolic in nature and put into place purposely to make a statement to the federal government.  “In a symbolic gesture of defiance to the federal ban on irrigation, farmers and their sympathizers formed a mile-long human chain and transported water, person-to-person, from Lake Ewauna at the city's Veterans Park to the main canal of the irrigation system,” (Foster). The bucket brigade was held on May 7, 2001 and was an all day event with thousands of people present.  Included in the crowd was Senator Gordon Smith.  There were public speakers beforehand, telling the stories of the farmers and the hardships in the community.  At noon the bucket brigade began.  “There were 51 four-gallon buckets, each bearing a bright red, white or blue balloon – one for every state in the Union and the District of Columbia,” (Foster).  There were people on the sidelines that watched and people that participated.  “The crowd was jubilant, waving American flags and hoisting placards that expressed the protesters' opinions about a government that denies irrigation water to farmers in the name of saving fish” (Foster).

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Over 1,400 farming families in the Klamath area were impacted by the water shut off.

Many lost their property through bankruptcy, some lost their livelihoods and many small

farmers had to give up agriculture, sell their farm and move away.

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 “On July 24 the Department of the Interior approved the release of some irrigation water from

Upper Klamath Lake, but the flow lasted only until August 23; the water was enough to save some

 fields growing winter feed for livestock, but some other crops were unsalvageable, and water didn’t

reach every farmer who needed it,” (NASA).  During all this time, private organizations donated

money and the community pulled together as much as it could to help out their fellow farmers.

  August 21, 2001 marked another symbolic day for the agricultural community where a parade took place.

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“The main attraction in the parade was the arrival of a giant 12-foot bucket that had been made in Salt Lake City, Utah, and brought to Klamath Falls by the convoy from Elko.  The bucket, which includes an American flag flying from its handle, was lifted from a trailer to the cement at the front of the county building by a large crane. According to event organizer Bill Ransom, the bucket will remain in front of the government edifice until the ‘battle is won’,” (Strom Article)

 

This giant bucket is symbolic to the farmers to let them know that even though they are going through a rough time, the community is backing them.

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Conclusion:

The agricultural community, the tribal community and the fishing community are all unstable at the moment.  However, pitting them against one another is only going to complicate the water situation further.  “‘Fish vs. Farmers’ is as misdirected as ‘cows vs. fisherman’ or ‘potatoes vs. Indians’; the situation is no more–and no less–than people in conflict over management of a sharply limited resource on which various groups have legitimate claims and on which their livelihoods depend,” (Carl Ullman).  There is currently a lack of communication and cooperation among all three of the communities.  Once the communities can put aside their differences and open their minds to the issues of the other side, then maybe once communication is involved, there could be an agreement reached.  Until that point in time, water is a main resource which will continue to be fought over.  What these communities need to realize is that conflict doesn’t solve anything, it only creates more problems.  They all need to protect the water, because once it is gone, it most likely won’t come back.

 

 

LINKS:

 

        More Information On The Role Fish Play In Native Culture

 

 

        More Information On The Bucket Brigade

 

        More Information On Endangered Species

 

 

.       More Information On The Klamath Basin Drought And Also Images Of The Drought

 

 

More Information On The Bucket Brigade

 

 

        Chiloquin Dam Study

 

       

        Opinion Article On The Water Crisis

 

 

        More Bucket Brigade Information