‘Nobody’s winning’: #Drought upends life in U.S. West basin — The #SantaFe New Mexican

Klamath River Basin. Map credit: American Rivers

From The Associated Press (Gillian Flaccus):

This summer, a historic drought and its consequences are tearing communities apart and attracting outside attention to a water crisis years in the making. Competition over Klamath River water has always been intense, but now there is simply not enough, and all the stakeholders are suffering.

“Everybody depends on the water in the Klamath River for their livelihood. That’s the blood that ties us all together,” [Ben] DuVal said of the competing interests. “Nobody’s coming out ahead this year. Nobody’s winning.”

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

“The system is crashing … for people up and down the Klamath Basin,” said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, which is monitoring a massive fish kill on the river. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Twenty years ago, when water feeding the irrigation system was drastically reduced amid another drought, the crisis became a national rallying cry for the political right, and some protesters opened the main irrigation canal in violation of federal orders.

This time, many irrigators reject the presence of anti-government activists. Farmers who need federal assistance to stay afloat fear ties to the far right could hurt them.

Meanwhile, toxic algae is blooming in the basin’s main lake, and two national wildlife refuges critical to migratory birds are drying out. The conditions have exacerbated a water conflict that began more than a century ago.

Beginning in 1906, the federal government reengineered a complex system of lakes, wetlands and rivers in the 10 million-acre Klamath River Basin to create tens of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland.

The Klamath Reclamation Project draws its water from the 96-square-mile Upper Klamath Lake. But the lake is also home to suckerfish central to the Klamath Tribes’ culture and creation stories.

In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed two species of sucker fish as endangered. The federal government must keep the lake at a minimum depth to support the fish — but this year, amid exceptional drought, there was not enough water to do that and supply irrigators.

“Agriculture should be based on what’s sustainable. There’s too many people after too little water,” said Don Gentry, the Klamath Tribes chairman.

With the Klamath Tribes enforcing their senior water rights to help suckerfish, there is also no extra water for downriver salmon.

The Karuk Tribe last month declared a state of emergency, citing climate change and the worst hydrologic conditions in the Klamath River Basin in modern history. Karuk tribal citizen Aaron Troy Hockaday Sr. is a fourth-generation fisherman but says he hasn’t caught a fish in the river since the mid-1990s…

A member of the Yurok Tribe pulls salmon from his gill net on the Klamath River on the Yurok Indian Reservation in Northern California, July 2015. This April [2019], a district court judge ruled that endangered salmon on the Klamath are entitled to prioritized protection. Photo credit: Terray Sylvester via High Country News

In most years, the tribes 200 miles to the southwest of the farmers, where the river reaches the ocean, ask the Bureau of Reclamation to release pulses of extra water from Upper Klamath Lake. The extra water mitigates outbreaks of a parasitic disease that proliferates when the river is low.

This year, the federal agency refused those requests.

Now, the parasite is killing thousands of juvenile salmon in the lower Klamath River, where the Karuk and Yurok tribes have coexisted with them for millennia. An average of 63 percent of fish caught last month in research traps near the river’s mouth were dead…

Near the river’s source, some of the farmers who are seeing their lives upended by the same drought say a guarantee of less water — but some water — each year would be better than the parched fields they have now. Some worry problems in the basin are being blamed on a way of life they also inherited.

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