A water struggle is brewing in Oregon after the Klamath Basin closes

The drought has “definitely made it a lot harder for us to make ends meet year after year, and it’s making an already tight margin a lot tighter,” Hill, a fourth-generation farmer, told CNN. “For all of us we have families, employees, customers – people that we first have to take care of.”

This year, as the Klamath Basin dried up, an environmental crisis exploded into a water war, in which local farmers competed against Indian tribes, government agencies and conservationists, with one group threatening to take back the water by force.

More than a century ago, the federal project Klamath redesigned the basin landscape, drained lakes and diverted rivers to build a farming community that now supplies horseradish, wheat, beets and even potatoes for frito-lay chips.

However, since then the project has sparked controversy over the environment, and in the 1980s two native fish species were listed as endangered. Since then, federal water agencies have tried to strike the impossible balance between providing water to local farmers and leaving enough behind to protect the fish that are central to the cultural practices of the indigenous Klamath tribes.

When the lake level fell earlier this year, federal officials decided to close a head gate that has been supplying water to communities around the basin since 1907.

“We have reached the end of the rope”

The closure has turned farming practices upside down, taxing the community and putting a financial burden on farming families. Some threaten to take matters into their own hands.

In April, Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll bought property next to the head gate of the irrigation canal in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Soon after, they erected a large red and white tent and covered it with American flags and signs such as “Stop Rural Cleansing” and “Help Amend the Endangered Species Act”.

“We’re here because we’re trying to stand up for our private property,” said Nielsen. “We tried to be nice, but we got to the end of the rope. Just go in, pull the bulkheads and open the head rails. “

“We’ll do it peacefully,” he added, “unless the federal government hires us as usual.”

In 2001, angry farmers – including Nielsen and Knoll – broke through a chain link fence during an earlier water blockade with the federal government and used saws, crowbars and blowtorches to break open the main gates of the main canal until the U.S. marshals were called in to put an end to it .

The same farmers, with the help of anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, known for leading an armed group to occupy Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, are threatening to blow the gates open again. Day stalemate with federal agents, but was acquitted by a jury. One of Bundy’s men, Robert LaVoy Finicum, was killed by law enforcement during that takeover. Among the posters hanging in Nielsen’s tent in the Klamath Basin is Finicum’s collective cry: “There are things that are more important than your life, and freedom is one of them.The local farmer named Dan Nielsen stands in front of the tent next to the main entrance "A" Canal in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

“He’s a nice guy, he’s just like me,” said Neilsen of Bundy. “He’s just ready to stand up for right and wrong.”

But many local farmers do not want to get their water back by force. Even if they manage to open the gates for a short time, Hill says, there will still not be enough water to meet their needs.

“When people are desperate and scared, they have all kinds of different reactions along the spectrum,” Hill said. “There are enough people marginalized this year that options that normally don’t seem sensible begin to change. When it comes to violence, I can’t just condone it.”

“When these fish die, the people die”

Upper Klamath Lake is home to two indigenous sucker fish – the C’waam and Koptu – that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. These fish are also sacred to the Klamath tribes of southern Oregon, which are made up of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahookskin groups of northern Paiute Indians.

But biologists and the tribal communities around Upper Klamath Lake say that warming temperatures and environmental degradation have caused water levels to drop to the bare minimum necessary to keep the fish alive.

A sign in Tulelake, California that says "Threatened farmers cannot survive without water."

According to Alex Gonyaw, a senior biologist for the Klamath tribes, the two critically endangered sucker fish are endemic species that have existed for at least a million years and have found it difficult to adapt to environmental changes – especially those caused by rapidly warming temperatures and agricultural customs.

The Klamath project created dangerous conditions for the fish, Gonyaw said. Phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from nearby farms drove enormous algal blooms, which deprived the water of oxygen.

“The fish are often getting less than they need, just as the farmers are getting less than they need, which means that this whole system has to be redesigned,” said Gonyaw.

The effects put an emotional and cultural strain on Native Americans in the basin. The C’waam fish, for example, is central to the tribe’s genesis and indigenous practices, but now they fear the species will become extinct. The tribe made the difficult decision in 1986 to stop hunting and fishing in the hope of the Recovery of the species.

Don Gentry, the chairman of the Klamath Tribes, in Chilochin, Oregon, where the tribal offices are located. "We are here today because these fish were here" he said.

“We are here today because these fish were here,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath tribes. “The creation story of the C’waam says, ‘When these fish die, people die.'”

As time runs out and the drought worsens, everyone seems to agree that the current path to tackling the water crisis is not working. Gentry agrees that even the mandatory protection measures for sucker fish under the Endangered Species Act do not improve conditions enough.

“All we try to do is protect the same thing that other people in the basin are doing, protect our homeland, our culture and our traditional economy – hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering,” said Gentry. “We have suffered this loss many times. We have to do what we have to do to protect the things that are here. It is unfortunate that we are playing ourselves off against others. “

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