The Klamath Basin has two possible fates – a report explores where each takes the area

The water-challenged region around Klamath Falls has seen many rough years of conflict, hardship. What’s ahead – desperation or resolution?

January 14, 2022 8:00 am

Tour-goers stop for a selfie in front of a pile of bulk storage potatoes at Staunton Farms during the Klamath Water Users Association Harvest Tour on Sept. 20, 2021. (Arden Barnes/Herald and News)

Here’s a recipe for concentrated depression.

The embattled and seriously troubled Klamath Basin, a center of social and environmental pathologies for two decades and more, facing a future, three decades hence, where climate change could make conditions far worse.

You could spin a dystopian novel from that. Or you could tell a more optimistic story.

In a project the Klamath Falls newspaper, the Herald and News, released last week, it did both, in the form of a pair of short stories. (It was funded in part by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Environmental Solutions Initiative.)

It did more than tell stories. It also suggested ways out of the area’s bitter water and environmental conflicts while painting a specific picture of what a climate-changed future actually may look like. The report showed that how people respond to the coming changes could make a vast difference.

Much of what we hear about climate change sounds theoretical: A temperature change of a couple of degrees (doesn’t sound like a lot) or an iceberg cleaved off in Antarctica. What about where I live?

The Klamath report got specific about that, about wildfires – of which last summer’s immense Bootleg Fire east of the Klamath area was only a foretaste – major weather swings, frequent severe drought years, and hotter summers.

The Klamath River Basin seems ill-prepared for any of this.

The drought year 2001 was a turning point, when the basin’s water supplies dropped enough that conflicts exploded that involved irrigators, environmental interests, nearby tribes and others. The area has been on edge for years since with little relief in sight.

It has attracted outside attention which often has added to the area’s troubles.

So, what might happen in the next two to three decades?

The newspaper project outlined the current situation and then, out of many plausible possibilities, sketched out a couple of fictional but fact-infused scenarios.

One was “lone farmer.”

It begins in an upcoming drought year (maybe this one) as water is shut off or severely limited to many users, and anger rises to a flashpoint. Agitators – apparently connected to out-of-area provocateurs like Idahoan Ammon Bundy – seize the Klamath system headgates and open the water to the irrigation canal. But there’s little water, and the incident is the last straw for the feds, who cut off environmental and assistance for the area.

Diminished water both on the surface and in local aquifers leaves fish dying, vast acreages of crops without irrigation and houses by the hundreds without running water. Many of the endangered species in the area become extinct. Local farmers become endangered too, nearly all selling out to an international corporation which takes over almost all the area’s farm land.

Only the local tribes remain, a significant political or legal factor, though after ongoing environmental hardship and the loss of fish runs, many tribal members move out of the area.

Wildfires like the massive Bootleg Fire recur. The area’s population falls by a third or more, as farm families move out or to a corporate-built residential community.

The second story, “lodgepole and ponderosa,” led with this: “Young people are hard at work restoring and protecting the Klamath Basin’s wetlands, forests and waterways. Despite intensifying climate change impacts, a 30-year effort has put the basin on a path toward resilience.”

The climate change assumed in both stories is the same. But in this one, a different trajectory is sketched for the next decade on the local and federal levels. Nationally, “The Interior Department establishes a climate corps program for each watershed in the Western U.S., inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps created a century earlier.” Locally, a new cooperative agreement between the various interests in the area – agricultural, tribal, residential, environmental and others – evolves a series of compromises on water and land use. The local group acquires some water from the federal government under an agreement on how it will be used, and water use in many places changes.

The end result is happier than in “lone farmer” – more local control, more prosperity at least for local businesses, and more local people, albeit with close discipline needed on everyone’s part.

The report suggested that, “The Klamath still has the ingredients of a successful watershed: Land, water, plants, birds, fish and people who care deeply about their homes and communities. But those things must be intricately connected in order to survive.”

The two scenarios seem to suggest as much.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.