What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Severe drought reignites decades-old conflict between Oregon ranchers, Indigenous peoples

Vast stretches of the Western U.S. are suffering under scorching temperatures, rampant wildfires and a years-long drought that's depleting lakes and reservoirs. The water scarcity is tearing apart one southern Oregon community where farmers, native tribes and endangered species are all struggling to survive this summer. Stephanie Sy has the story.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vast stretches of the Western U.S. are suffering under scorching temperatures, rampant wildfires and a years-long drought that's depleting lakes and reservoirs.

    The water scarcity is tearing apart one Southern Oregon community, where farmers, Native tribes and endangered species are all struggling to survive this summer.

    Stephanie Sy has the story.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Klamath Tribes have fished in the rivers of Southern Oregon for thousands of years.

  • Don Gentry (Chairman, Klamath Tribes):

    Traditionally, we honored and respected everybody. Everybody had a place and a purpose.

    And when I shared that fish with our elders, as my dad taught me to do, I also learned a world view about why those fish are important and how they were placed here. So it's not only a part of our subsistence, but it's a part of our culture.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tribal Chairman Don Gentry and his grandson Marcus (ph) reeled in redband trout as the sun went down on another scorching hot day in Klamath Basin.

  • Don Gentry:

    Gosh, the water's low.

  • Man:

    It's probably down about a foot since I have been out last, too.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The water, and the fish in it aren't what they used to be.

    So, is the water always this green?

  • Don Gentry:

    Well, early in the year, it's not. I'm 66 years old. I remember when it wasn't like this. I remember some filaments of algae, but nothing like this, where it's like pea soup.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A punishing 20-year drought has revived a fight over water, pitting the survival of two endangered species of suckerfish, long sacred to the Native tribes, against the livelihoods of ranchers, who depend on the same water source.

  • Ty Kliewer, Rancher:

    The going couldn't be a whole lot worse than it is right now. This normally would be an extremely different scene.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ty Kliewer's fields are parched and barren, unable to grow hay for his livestock.

  • Ty Kliewer:

    Our production this year is probably going to be about a 10th of what it would normally be. I don't know, really, what I'm going to do.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The water in Klamath Lake has irrigated farms like Kliewer's on the surrounding Klamath Project since 1907, but not this year. When there's not enough water to go around, the Endangered Species Act requires that lake levels are high enough to protect fish.

    Back in May, the Bureau of Reclamation turned off the water from this canal. It's the main source of water for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Project. Since then, a few have set up camp here to protest and are threatening to turn the water back on themselves.

    There just isn't enough water for anyone, including the birds in the national wildlife refuges that depend on run-off from the Klamath Project farms that won't be coming this year.

  • Woman:

    There is no justice.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Twenty years ago, another water shutoff pushed the community to the brink. Some protesters even forced the canal headgates open, just like they have threatened to do this year.

  • Hannah Gosnell, Oregon State University:

    2001 was another really bad drought year.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Hannah Gosnell studies the history of water disputes in the Klamath Basin.

  • Hannah Gosnell:

    There was no water for the irrigators that summer. And what that meant is a lot of farms went out of business. There was a lot of suffering and crisis and bankruptcies, and people came from all over the country showing their empathy for the farmers.

    And there were riots. And tribes were hung in effigy, because a lot of the blame went on the tribes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Don Gentry remembers the pain it caused his tribe.

  • Don Gentry:

    Some of our members were there, and they were spat upon. Kids from one of the ag communities came through, Chiloquin looking for sucker-loving Indians, and shot up the town with their shotguns

  • Stephanie Sy:

    After those tensions came to a boiling point, the different parties in the basin sat down to negotiate.

    And, in 2010, they finally reached an almost miraculous compromise. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement charted a path for water-sharing, and would have spent over a billion dollars on ecological restoration projects and returning land to the Native tribes.

    But Congress never funded the agreement. It fell apart, and, since then, the sides have dug in their heels.

  • Don Gentry:

    I don't think there's room for a compromise. Our fish need the water that we have a right to.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Those endangered suckerfish, called C'waam and Koptu, are still dying in droves. Just five years ago, there were some 20,000 Koptu in Klamath Lake. Now only an estimated 3400 remain.

  • Ty Kliewer:

    Fish have been prioritized for water in the basin for over 20 years now, and that has not led to one iota of recovery. It has 100 percent broken the legs of this community, though.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tribal Chairman Don Gentry knows that conserving water alone isn't enough to save the fish. He blames irrigated agriculture and government management of the basin for their habitat loss.

  • Don Gentry:

    They're an indicator species. If they're on the verge of extinction, it shows you something is seriously wrong.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Becky Hyde is a rancher in the Klamath Basin, but she agrees that the system needs fixing. Hyde insists ranchers like her have a role to play in restoring the watershed, and making things right with the people who were here first.

    Hyde has a unique arrangement with the Klamath Tribes. They own the easement on her property.

  • Becky Hyde, Rancher:

    They are the ones that come and monitor and say the river is getting narrower. They were absolutely here first. And there was tremendous historical damage done to Native people in this basin.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's a couple miles of compromise in a community where that often feels all but impossible. And Hyde knows her efforts are just a drop in the bucket, when far bigger changes are needed to get the basin on a more sustainable path.

  • Becky Hyde:

    Everybody is in a place of scarcity here. It all has to change.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And what does that look like?

  • Becky Hyde:

    One is that reparations package for Klamath Tribes. And the other thing is massive ecological restoration, like at the scale of what the Everglades are doing, that kind of investment to restore resiliency here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Hannah Gosnell says it's a story of broken promises, and not just to the tribes.

  • Hannah Gosnell:

    A lot of people have been calling for an apology to the tribes, and I think that's really important. But we also probably need to apologize to the irrigators for promising them that they would be able to irrigate in perpetuity.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    When those promises were made more than 100 years ago, there was simply more water in the Klamath Basin.

    Ty Kliewer is doing his best to stay afloat. He brews beer on his farm, a hobby-turned-business that, unlike ranching, doesn't depend on an unreliable supply of water.

  • Ty Kliewer:

    There are many who are in a much more perilous situation than I am. You never do, but you almost think giving up hope might be the right idea.

    If my children's experience farming and ranching here is going to be anything like mine has been, I would have a really, really hard time telling them this is a good idea and this is something you want to do with your life.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Don Gentry also thinks of the next generation when he looks out on the dwindling waters that have sustained his people for so long. He remembers explaining to his grandson why they could no longer fish the endangered C'waam and Koptu.

  • Don Gentry:

    He was just a little boy. And I just remember him looking up to me. And he goes: "I can't wait until we can catch and eat those fish again."

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Listen to this Segment