Editor's Note: The following article was first published in the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights' website. It presents an overview the challenges the Klamath Tribes have had in attempting to settle water rights issues in the Klamath River Basin.
Chuck Tanner in Native Challenges. Discussion »
A Just Solution, Now Difficult
An accord known as the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement aimed at settling long-standing conflicts over resource and water rights between Indian Nations, farmers, environmentalists and dams in the Klamath River Basin, has been derailed by Tea Party Patriots members in that area, according to a story in the July 18 edition of the New York Times. An Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights investigation, however, has found that a combination of Tea Party groups, anti-Indian sentiment and "property rights" groups have combined to make a just solution to this dispute difficult. To understand the significance of this story, however, we begin not with the Tea Party but with the Klamath River Basin itself.
The Klamath River is the third largest river on the West Coast, stretching some 263 miles from its headwaters in Southern Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake to south of Crescent City, California. Eight federally recognized tribes call the Klamath Basin their homelands the Klamath Tribes Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin in the Upper Klamath Basin, and, in the Lower Klamath, the Hoopa Valley, Yurok and Karuk Tribes, Resighini Rancheria and Quartz Valley Indian Community. Since time immemorial these tribes hunted, fished and gathered in the Klamath River watershed. Several species of sucker fish are economically and culturally important to Upper Klamath tribes, while salmonids are fished the length of the Klamath River.
The roots of the current conflict lie in the pattern of white settlement of the region that trampled indigenous natural resources and rights underfoot. The Bureau of Reclamations' Klamath Project began in 1905 and eventually irrigated some 200,000 acres of arid lands in Oregon and California. PacificCorp, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's Mid American Energy, and its hydroelectric dams and agricultural and other development also decimated tribal fisheries. By the 1990s in the Klamath River, two species of sucker fish as well as Coho salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. A 2002 die-off of some 30,000 fish in the river dramatized the scale of the problem. The Klamath and Quartz Valley Tribes both faced termination under separate Congressional acts in the 1950s. Though these laws were later rescinded, this added to the uphill struggle of Native peoples in the region.
In pursuit of differing ends, tribes, farmers, environmentalists, PacificCorp, and government agencies have engaged in lawsuits, adjudication, and administrative and legislative maneuvering over tribal fishing and water rights, irrigation contracts, and the application of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and Federal Power Act.
Complicating the farmers' claims to the water, most of the Klamath Basin tribes have federally recognized fishing rights, while the Klamath, Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes have water rights senior to those of the irrigation districts under principles of western water law, and a combination of treaties, executive actions and legislation. Federal agencies have "moral obligations of the highest responsibility" to uphold tribal water and fishing rights, according to court decisions.
To settle this otherwise intractable conflict, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and related Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement were proposed as potential solutions. Signing an agreement in February 2012 were the Karuk, Klamath and Yurok tribes, the Department of Interior and National Marine Fisheries Service, state agencies, two county governments, irrigation districts, water users and commercial and recreational fishing groups.
The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement outlines a plan for fisheries restoration and reintroduction, and includes provisions for parceling water between in-stream fish and irrigation. The Hydroelectric Agreement would develop a plan to remove four dams on the Klamath River and lead to a determination on removal by the Secretary of the Interior.
Chuck Tanner is an Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights Advisory Board Member and Research Director of Borderlands Research and Education. Borderlands is dedicated to using strategic research and education to support indigenous treaty rights and sovereignty.
posted August 7, 2012 7:59 am edt