Water is spilling onto farmland next to Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon. That’s because nearly two miles of levees were destroyed in a series of explosions Tuesday. But it’s no accident. Correspondent Chris Lehman explains.
It took years of planning, and it was over in a matter of seconds. As onlookers cheered, four earthen levees were destroyed with thousands of pounds of explosives.
The dikes were built in the 1950’s to create more farmland in Klamath Basin. But more farmland meant less water for fish.
The blasts are meant to reverse that, according to The Nature Conservancy. That’s the group that purchased the farmland for this purpose. They want to restore 2500 acres of wetland for two endangered species of fish known as suckers. But the group’s Mark Stern says it’s about more than suckers.
Mark Stern: “They’re the endangered fish, but they’re also to me like the canary in the mine shaft. They’re really representative and indicative of bigger problems here in the system relating to loss of habitat and water quality. So as we work towards improving conditions for these endangered fish, it’s really working towards improving conditions for the entire ecosystem and all the native species that are a part of it.”
The project is being closely watched by the Klamath Tribe. The fish are important to them, for both cultural and economic reasons. Tribal chair Joe Kirk says he remembers catching the fish he called chwam when he was a young child.
Joe Kirk: “I could sell them for oh, nickel, dime, quarter. However much money people felt about giving a first grader.”
But the fish are a source of tension for others in the Klamath Basin. Drought and fish protection sparked the federal government to shut off irrigation for farmers in 2001.
Some pried open irrigation head gates in protest. Water remains a scarce resource. Local farmer John Crawford says anytime farmland is lost to a conservation project, it’s an economic hit to the entire area.
John Crawford: “Those are lands that will never be in agricultural production again. And those are the kind of things that affect my community. They affect the grocer, the guy selling seed, the guy selling fertilizer. All of those people in my community are impacted when an acre of agricultural land goes out of production.”
Still, Crawford says there’s a silver lining for farmers. If the fish make a comeback, they could be removed from the endangered species list. And that could lower the tension level for everybody.
The Nature Conservancy says this project could benefit farmers in another way. A larger lake means more water will be available for everyone. But not all of that water is making an appearance just yet.
That’s because the explosions didn’t exactly unleash a tidal wave. It was more like a trickle. Mark Stern says the lack of an immediate flood is nothing to worry about.
Mark Stern: “Come next March, the area where we’re standing today will be under several feet of water. So when the lake reaches full pool later winter, early spring, it will be very different than it is today.”
Environmentalists hope it will be different enough to make a major difference in the lives of fish.