‘If the fish die, the people die’: Water wars in America’s West
Why Indigenous activists in Oregon say racial injustice is at the root of regional water conflicts that have been intensifying with the climate crisis.
Klamath Falls, Oregon – Rehearsing her speech, Joey Gentry looked nervous. An environmental activist and member of the Klamath Tribes, Gentry planned to address the city council of the small farming town in Southern Oregon where she lived the next day.
The region’s best hope to end its decades-long conflict over water, she planned to argue, was to finally address its legacy of land dispossession, ecological destruction and genocide against Native American tribes like hers. “I can say that to you guys,” she said quietly to a group of supporters gathered at a park in downtown Klamath Falls, “I don’t know if I can say it to them.”
Speaking publicly about racial justice was not without risk in Klamath Falls. A year earlier, at the park where Gentry now sat, a small Black Lives Matter demonstration was met with hundreds of counter-protesters armed with rifles, shotguns and pistols. Now, Gentry planned to argue that the Klamath Basin’s festering racial injustices were also at the root of the region’s explosive issue: water.
For decades, water has divided farmers and Indigenous people throughout the 15,000 square-mile (38,850 square km) Klamath Basin, which comprises parts of Southern Oregon and Northern California. Tensions rose in May when the federal government shut off access to the water that generations of local farmers had relied on to irrigate their crops. Climate change had brought on extreme drought and the hottest summer in the state’s history. Under those conditions, extracting water for agriculture from Upper Klamath Lake could further threaten endangered species of fish that are sacred to the Klamath Tribes, federal officials said.
In response, a group of farmers and far-right activists set up camp next to the irrigation canal and threatened to take water by force, making national headlines. By midsummer, desiccated tracts of land and near-ghost-towns dotted the countryside. The shutoff directly affected about 1,000 farmers, but the agricultural industry contributes roughly $400m a year to the local economy, according to an estimate by an irrigation lobbying group. By August, resentment at the federal government – and the Klamath Tribes – permeated Klamath Falls.
“This is a cowboys and indians fight,” a commenter wrote online ahead of the city council meeting, evoking a 19th-century massacre of more than a dozen Indigenous people on the shores of Klamath Lake. “We should have finished the job the first time.”
The threats loomed over Gentry as she sat at the park downtown scribbling notes for the next day’s presentation on the back of a manila folder. Gentry, 50, wore a long black dress, black cowboy boots, and short-cropped hair. After spending most of her adult life in Portland, she had moved back to Klamath Falls four years earlier to take care of her ailing mother. Soon, the urgency of the region’s ecological crises – compounded by a warming climate – compelled her to activism. Now, as she wrote, ash from nearby wildfires blotted out the afternoon sun.
“Our creation story teaches us that if the fish die, the people die,” she said. “We have to hear the message that our fish are telling us.”
The water wars
Vast and shallow, Upper Klamath Lake once teemed with suckerfish that the Klamath Tribes subsisted on for millennia. Today, the tribe estimates that only about 24,000 remain, and that without intervention the fish could soon go extinct.
Before agriculture arrived in the Klamath Basin, thousands of acres of wetlands surrounded Upper Klamath Lake, acting as a filter for the water.
Then, in the early 1900s, the federal government dramatically altered the ecosystem as part of its push to encourage white settlers to move West. It handed out plots of land to farmers, built dams, and re-routed rivers to deliver water to them. It drained much of the wetlands to make way for new fields and pastures, which deprived the lake of its filter.
Now, the lake turns toxic every year when massive blooms of algae transform the colour and texture of the water into something like pea soup. Young suckerfish die before they can reach maturity; the remaining population is ageing adults. In less than 150 years of growing potatoes for potato chips, and hay for dairy cows, agriculture in the Klamath Basin pushed the fish to the brink of extinction.
In early August, fourth-generation farmer Rodney Cheyne was laying down irrigation pipes on an alfalfa field at his spread outside of Klamath Falls. Some of his fields were still green thanks to the water a neighbour allowed him to buy from his well.
Cheyne wore a plaid pearl-snap shirt, Wranglers, and a green Rodney Cheyne Farms trucker hat. Farming, he said, is “what I was born to do, and I feel like I do a good job at it”. His children and dogs chased each other around the front yard, and a John Deere tricycle sat in the driveway. He said the shutoff was squeezing him financially – loan payments on his farm equipment did not stop just because the water did. “This isn’t a 4-H project,” he said, referring to the farming programme for children. “It’s as serious as a heart attack.”
Cheyne’s forebears came to the Klamath Basin in 1909 on the promise of cheap and abundant land and water. “There was a federal government who wanted all of us people to come down here and farm this newly reclaimed land, so my family did,” he said. The water shutoff felt like a betrayal. “The tables turned, and the same federal government that told my family to come here, 115 years ago, is now telling me to get the hell out of here.”
But over that same period, climate change has upended the Klamath irrigation project’s most central assumption – that early 20th-century water conditions would persist forever, explained Craig Tucker, an environmental consultant who has spent 20 years advocating for the ecological restoration of the Klamath River. When the federal Bureau of Reclamation began construction on the Klamath irrigation project in 1906, officials promised “something that they couldn’t deliver”, Tucker said. “And that was a dependable flow of water, year in and year out, into perpetuity.”
Now, with much of the West mired in extreme drought, there is not enough water for the government to fulfil all of its promises at the same time, the Bureau of Reclamation explained while announcing the May shutoff. Courts have affirmed that when water is scarce, officials must first honour their obligations to the tribes because their rights date to time immemorial.
The conflicting promises first came to a head in 2001 when, then as now, the government shut off water to farmers to protect the fish. Thousands of farmers filled the streets of Klamath Falls to form the “bucket brigade”, symbolically moving buckets of water into the closed irrigation canal. As anger spread across the Basin, members of the Klamath Tribes faced discrimination. Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, remembered restaurants refusing to serve tribal members, and mockingly advertising “suckerfish sandwiches”. Later that year, three men were convicted for driving recklessly through Chiloquin, where the Klamath Tribes are based, while firing guns and yelling racist epithets.
In July 2001, as the protests continued, a group of farmers broke open the headgates one night, allowing water flow for a few hours in defiance of the government and of the endangered fish. Later that month, under pressure from the protesters – and from Washington – the Bureau of Reclamation reversed itself. Vice President Dick Cheney had reached into the bowels of the agency to help force the water back on, The Washington Post later reported.
“The federal government caved and gave us our water,” said Cheyne, who visited the protests as a seventh-grader. But the victory for agriculture was an ecological disaster downstream.
Taking water for irrigation during a severe drought had unleashed an epidemic of fish disease in the Klamath River. Salmon began washing ashore covered in boils, eyes bulging. All told, roughly 34,000 salmon died in one of the largest fishkills of its kind, the US Fish and Wildlife Service found (PDF). The Yurok tribe had subsisted on salmon for thousands of years, and many of its members still depended on fish to feed their families because they lived in remote wilderness, far from a grocery store. The fishkill threatened the Yurok with hunger.
“I remember the smell,” Sammy Gensaw, a Yurok fisherman, said. “The smell of genocide.”
Today, the tribe estimates that less than 5 percent of the salmon run remains.
Meanwhile, in Klamath Falls, farmers commemorated their victory by installing a 10-foot (3-metre) tall metal bucket in front of the county government building. It sat on display for 13 years, sending a clear message: Klamath supports the farmers. (The county moved it at the request of a movie company that wanted to film a scene there.)
Cheyne remembered 2001 as a time of unity, and hoped to see the same sort of robust pushback this year. In the decade since the bucket brigade, he had come to doubt the tribe’s motives.
“The fish,” he said, “is the only way the tribes can get retribution on the white man.”
Dams as monuments
The 2001 bucket brigade catalysed an improbable alliance. The Klamath Basin had hit “rock bottom”, Tucker recalled, and a group of moderate farmers joined federal regulators, state officials and tribes to hash out a water-sharing solution.
The negotiations eventually sprawled over 10 years, but the group reached what they viewed as a grand bargain. Signed in 2010, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) promised a dependable supply of water to farmers, even during drought years, while funding the kind of large-scale ecological restoration long sought by tribes. Peace in the Klamath seemed to signal hope for other western water wars, and the KBRA soon became the subject of glowing magazine profiles and a hopeful documentary film.
The linchpin of the deal was the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. Downstream tribes wanted them out to restore vast tracts of salmon habitat, and moderate farmers were indifferent because they provided no water storage for agriculture. The power company that operated the dams also favoured removal, because it allowed them to avoid paying for expensive repairs. To KBRA negotiators, dam removal was a win-win.
“These are deadbeat dams,” said Tucker, who participated in the negotiations on behalf of the Karuk tribe. “There’s no reason to keep them.”
But although the dams may have been obsolete in a practical sense, they had held their value as symbols. Opponents of the deal successfully used dam removal to whip up populist anger against the KBRA, said Steve Kandra, a farmer who negotiated the deal. Opponents branded the KBRA the “dam scam”, Kandra recalled. The opposition, he said, tapped into a deep well of conspiratorial anger at the government and the tribes. The message was: “Don’t believe what they’re telling you.”
Descendents of homesteaders “feel this sense of entitlement to the ranch, the farm and the water,” Tucker added. “These dams are really a symbol of that.”
Handing a victory to environmentalists and tribes on the Klamath – even if it ultimately benefitted farmers – was a non-starter for western House Republicans, said Greg Walden, who then represented the area in Congress. The thinking was that first they would un-dam Klamath, then move on the Snake River in Idaho, and so on, the argument went.
With opposition to the deal galvanised over dam removal, a decade of compromise died in Congress when lawmakers did not pass the necessary funding to implement the KBRA before a 2016 deadline.
In Tucker’s view, dam removal was only a proxy for the KBRA’s true cause of death: an ideological commitment to Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century movement to support white settlement of the West. Tucker, who grew up in South Carolina, compared the dams on the Klamath with Confederate monuments. “They’re not really useful, and they don’t make any money,” he said. “But they remind everybody who’s in control here.”
A history of racism
Today, there is no silver bullet for saving the suckerfish, but the Klamath Tribes say that farmers and ranchers often refuse to take even small steps that would help. Fencing off cattle from the lake and surrounding rivers, for instance, can improve water quality. But ranchers like Leroy Gienger, who owns some 280 acres (113 hectares) on Upper Klamath Lake, will not stop his cows from polluting the water.
At his kitchen table in August, Gienger explained that, despite a stern letter from the Oregon Department of Agriculture asking him to stop his cows from polluting the water, he did not want to ruin his view with a fence. More to the point, he said, he would not allow the tribes to tell him what to do. The Klamath Tribes had lost their land – and now their fish – fair and square, he argued. “The Indian land was broke up and sold,” he said. “The strong take it away from the weak – they always have.”
After the shutoff this summer, the 10-foot-tall metal bucket from 2001 reappeared in Klamath Falls. En route to the encampment of farmers and far-right activists at the irrigation canal headgates, the bucket rolled through downtown on a trailer displaying the Confederate flag. At the encampment, Dan Nielsen, an organiser of the protest, boasted about breaking open the canal and bringing Ammon Bundy to Klamath Falls. (Bundy had become a far-right folk hero after leading an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in 2016.)
Cheyne said he was grateful for the attention that Neilsen, his neighbour, brought to the shutoff. “The community’s happy to have him because, without him, there wouldn’t have been a lot of stories this year,” he said.
The tent encampment had been up for almost four months by the time Joey Gentry was preparing to address the city council. The night before the meeting, she drove to the home of her sister-in-law, Mary Gentry, who was sewing coloured ribbons onto a long black skirt for Joey to wear the next day.
“I’ve lived here in this community for almost 70 years, and I’ve hid, and I’ve been in the background,” Mary said. “I haven’t realised how fearful I am.”
Few tribal members publicly connected the water crisis with racism against Indigenous people. “You are doing things that I always wanted to do,” Mary said, looking up from the sewing machine. “This helps me put myself out there through you.” She stitched the ribbons to the skirt: blue for the water, silver for the fish, green for the agricultural community.
The next day, Joey Gentry arrived at city hall early with the other members of the city’s Equity Task Force. More than a year earlier, the city council formed the group in the wake of the armed counterprotest downtown to study the problem of racism in Klamath Falls. Gentry’s appearance was part of the group’s final report.
The group filed into the city council chambers. Regulars from the farmers’ tent protest sat in the front row. Then, before the meeting could start, police arrested a man for threatening a task force member with a heavy, jagged rock. Gentry, shaken, approached the microphone.
“Klamath has a history of racism that continues to be handed down from generation to generation,” she told the city council. “Our water crisis still exists today because of racism against the tribe, and racism against the tribe exists, in part, today because of our water crisis.”
She urged the council to issue a proclamation acknowledging that anti-Indigenous racism has worsened water disputes, and to publicly disavow the bucket brigade. “That bucket is our racist monument,” she said. “It is the history where our entire community is against us.” The mayor and council members sat impassively.
Two days after Gentry spoke, at the farmers’ encampment, Nielsen and the regulars were folding up the circus tent and loading it onto a flatbed trailer, preparing to leave. Unlike 2001, widespread support never materialised, and despite Nielsen’s tough talk, Ammon Bundy never showed up.
“Doesn’t seem like the local farmers want to stand up,” Nielsen said, before mocking the equity task force. “White people are racist, if you’re a Christian you’re racist, if you believe in the constitution you’re racist,” he said, sneering. “So figure the racist people are moving their camp. When we come back, we’ll go inside the compound there and get our water.”
Word travelled quickly that the camp and the bucket were gone. Joey Gentry arrived and snapped a few photos of the deserted site. “I guess that we’re doing some work, that it’s starting to make a difference,” she said. But the city council would disband the task force the following month without acting on its recommendations, saying in a statement that its work was complete.
For now, Gentry marked a quiet victory. “This distraction is gone,” she said. She thought of the sacred fish nearby, quietly inching towards extinction with each passing week. “Now the real work begins.”