Think Out Loud

Klamath Basin drought: Klamath Tribes

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
July 12, 2021 5 p.m. Updated: July 20, 2021 4:58 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, July 12

This week, Think Out Loud has traveled to the Klamath Basin to have conversations with people affected by the severe drought in the region. The Klamath Tribes have major concerns about the health and survival of the C’waam and Koptu, also known as the Lost River and shortnose suckers. Clayton Dumont is a tribal councilman for the Klamath Tribes. He joins us from the side of the Williamson River in Chiloquin to share details about what’s going on with the fish and other ecological and cultural issues facing the region.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We are coming to you today, and all this week, from the Klamath Basin. We’ve come here to talk about water. There is not enough of it to go around, not nearly enough for crops and birds and endangered fish. This region is no stranger to drought and the human conflicts that follow, but even so, the current drought has no precedent in recent history. And so, it has native tribes, irrigators, fishermen and wildlife managers all asking an existential question: If we can’t go on like this, what is a viable path forward?

We’re going to spend the next three days in Klamath Falls before following the Klamath River all the way to the Pacific. We’ll talk to a whole bunch of people whose lives and livelihoods and cultures are all connected to this water. So many of these conversations are going to revolve around something that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. That’s when the federal government’s Bureau of Reclamation put in a series of dams, dikes and canals. They dried up lakes to create farmland and then they diverted water to irrigate crops. They called it the Klamath Project.

We start today with Clayton Dumont. He is a member of the tribal council for the Klamath Tribes. We met up with him yesterday along the Williamson River, which feeds into Klamath Lake. The lake is the home to two species of sucker fish that are deeply tied to the tribe’s history and culture. They are also at risk of going extinct. When I met Dumont, the sky was hazy and yellowish because the Bootleg Fire was burning just about 20 miles away. I had him describe what we were looking at.

Clayton Dumont: So this is one of our two major rivers. It’s the home of a very big trout food source. It’s a fresh water source to the lake. Cold clear water, it’s very, very cold. The water quality in the lake right now, as we’re speaking, is deteriorating. One of the things about all the smoke that I’m a little bit hopeful about is that we may dodge some of the worst algae blooms, because of the lack of direct sunlight.

Miller: That’s a rare silver lining, I suppose, from a forest fire. You’re saying that because of the smoke in the air, less sunlight is going to hit the water, meaning less algae? And what does that mean for the two really important sucker fish species?

Dumont: Well, the problem that we’re having with the fish is that they’re unable to reproduce. They’re very tough, hardy fish as adults, they have a lifespan that’s roughly 30 years. The population that we have now is approaching the end of their life cycle. So the young ones, when they get in there after the algae blooms die off and crash, it sucks all the oxygen out of the water and they’re not able to survive in that. It’s been 20-some years since we’ve had a successful (what biologists call) recruitment.

Miller: What do sucker fish mean for the Klamath tribes?

Dumont: Our legends tell us that our creator Gmok’am’c told us that if the sucker fish die, we die. A lot of folks think of that as a literal correlation, but of course we think about it as those fish being a kind of indicator species. As I told you, they’re really tough, really hardy. If they can’t make it, then all the other species are suffering too, and we know that that’s the case. Most of our first foods, our traditional foods are on the brink.

Of course, they’re culturally very important to us. We have what we call a C’waam ceremony every year, which is just upriver a-ways, where the Sprague runs in, where our ancestors would thank Creator for the return of the C’waam every spring.

Miller: C’waam is one of the Klamath words for one of the two sucker fish species.

Dumont: Yes, we have C’waam and we have a Koptu. And we have what are called Yen. The elders tell us there used to be a lot more. If you head out toward Fort Klamath, you’ll see another big cold, clean river called the Wood River, and Crooked Creek. The elders tell us those used to be full of purple colored suckers, which we don’t ever see anymore.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the numbers? How many sucker fish, it seems like there are now compared to what there used to be?

Dumont: For the Koptu, we’re in the single thousands. The C’waam I believe are in the tens of thousands.

Miller: That’s compared to hundreds of thousands or millions in the past?

Dumont: Yeah. Like I said, the elders tell us that there were so many in the rivers in the Spring running up that it looked like the river was alive. We know that our ancestors would bring wagons, horse and buggies up, and just fill them. Not only with suckers, but salmon. We had c’iyaal’s, salmon here, tens of thousands of pounds of salmon that were taken out before the dams went in.

Miller: You mentioned the algae blooms. What else is making life hard for suckers right now, and especially for their ability to reproduce?

Dumont: Depending on who’s doing the math, we’ve lost between 70% and 80% of the wetlands. The wetlands are, of course, important for a lot of reasons:

One: They act like giant sponges that hold moisture in the environment. When there’s a lot of water, they absorb it, and when it’s dry, they release it. They’re also natural filters. Our biologists are better at explaining this than I am, but they actually attach the particles, the phosphorus particles that are what cause the algae blooms. When you let those giant filters go, or when you plow them under and make them into agricultural fields, you’re losing the big filters that used to preserve the water quality in the lake.

Not only that, but the wetlands are what the biologists called refuge, basically hiding places for the little fish that we were talking about. We have big bird populations, although those also have been in decline, but they like to feed on those little guys. So they’re really important parts of the ecosystem.

Miller: What kind of restoration work are the Klamath tribes doing right now to try to address this?

Dumont: On our own properties, we do a lot of replanting of natural vegetation. You’ll see what’s here, these grasses, willows like this. As I said, this is Little Willow River all along out there. You’ll see logs out, to slow and create pools so that you don’t get erosion into the sides of the stream banks, which is again where a lot of the phosphorus comes from.

We try to work with a lot of the cattle ranchers to fence off the cattle and keep them out of the riparian zones. We have also put together [or] paid for stock water wells for them, which are just small amounts of water, enough to take care of the cattle and keep them out of the rivers. We also use what are called beaver dam analogs, which again, are just designed to slow and pool the water and stop the erosions.

Miller: So humans doing stuff like what beavers used to do because there aren’t beavers to do it?

Dumont: Yes. We’ve got some beavers coming back, hopefully. I know there’s a few places. The ranchers don’t really like having them.

Miller: Because they make it a more tangled wetland kind of a place, and ranchers want dry land where they can farm, or have their cows.

Dumont: They want their cows, that’s right.

Miller: This gets to just one of the many ways that not having enough water in the system is causing so many conflicts between so many parties. Is that showing up in everyday human life? If you go to the grocery store in Klamath Falls, do you feel tension in your dealings with ranchers, or other people who rely on irrigation?

Dumont: That tension is always here. To their credit, the ranchers certainly aren’t a homogenous group. Some of those who are more in the mainstream have worked hard to let their families and friends know that we don’t want to make this into a hostile, social, racialized kind of atmosphere. But it’s still there. You see it on social media, you see signs around town, you’ll see stickers on cars.

Miller: What are the signs say, or the stickers? The ones you’re talking about, that are more nasty and more obviously racialized?

Dumont: So there’s one sticker that was popular on the backs of pickups that has a little boy peeing on a sucker fish, and it says “Here’s your water, sucker.” There’s another one that we used to see down in Merrill, which is actually a town south of Klamath Falls where there’s a lot of ranches, down on the Lost River. It was posted in a restaurant, it said “Some suckers stole my water.” You see signs around, for example, out on the back roads here, the ranches that will say “Indians are not endangered, ranchers are,” that sort of thing. There was a giant bucket that’s out at the fairgrounds now, but used to sit down in front of the government building across from the courthouse, that dates back to 2001, which most tribal folks see as very much a racial epithet.

Miller: Can you remind us what happened In 2001 and then in 2002, it’s really relevant for right now.


Dumont: 2001, of course, was the last time that the project was shut off.

Miller: The Bureau of Reclamation’s huge irrigation system, which provides water to ranchers and irrigators. They said there’s not enough water in the system, and because of these endangered fish, farmers, you can’t have water this year. Is that a fair way to put it?

Dumont: Yes. The following year, the Bush administration opened them up, and we had a massive die off of salmon down in the Klamath River.

Miller: But the bucket has been sort of memorialized, that’s from 2001, the Bucket Brigade, when irrigators symbolically took water bucket to bucket, to provide themselves with water. So what goes to your mind when you see that bucket now?

Dumont: We talk about it among ourselves. We were concerned that it might show up in the 4th of July parade, which it didn’t.

Miller: You mean just a couple weeks ago? Or wait, what day is today we’re talking? So last week, you were thinking it might show up there as a kind of community celebration of that moment of that bucket brigade. But what do you feel when you see a community celebration of the bucket?

Dumont: I feel marginalized. I feel hated. I feel misunderstood. I think that our folks feel that. They’re angry, very angry when they see that. They believe that there’s a kind of privilege and arrogance at work, that doesn’t look back far enough to understand what the project has done to the environment and to our homeland.

Miller: That looks back to 1906, which I think was the year that the project started, and white settlers and farmers got land, started farming it, started growing potatoes or wheat, started raising cattle, and after many generations have come to see and talk about their rights to that water. How far back does your memory or understanding of history go?

Dumont: Well we talk about, and the state of Oregon of course recognizes our water rights as time immemorial. My three times great grandfather signed the treaty in 1864. Most of our tribal members can trace their lineage back to the treaty signers. I know for example that he lived down on Klamath Lake, and was what they called a headman. And he was there when the first settlers showed up. So it goes way back. I know who his wives were and who their descendants are.

And so we joke, we say, “Well the farmers are talking about fourth generation, but we have gossip that’s older than that.” Not that we don’t feel for them. We don’t want anyone to lose their livelihoods, but we all have to live within the limits that are set by the environment.

Miller: Zooming back to your own life and history, you have a PhD, you spent almost 30 years in academia in the Bay Area. Now you’re back here. What brought you back here?

Dumont: This is home. I always knew I wanted to come back. But as I was telling you as we walked down here, it’s a very impoverished place. It’s hard to make a living. So I really wanted to be financially stable enough to be able to come back and work for the tribe, but not have to try to make a living doing that. We have a part time council. We couldn’t live on what we’re paid.

I always wanted to come back. My parents made a good decision to flee when they did.

But we’re on the comeback. Our folks are getting more and more educated. The tribal institutions are growing again. We’re slowly acquiring parts of our homeland. It’s good to be home and be part of that.

Miller: One of the many intricacies of the Klamath Basin is that we’ve been talking about the endangered sucker fish, two species that are endemic, that are only in this part of the world. But downriver, there’s another endangered species, coho salmon, that commercial fishermen rely on and that native tribes, a number of them in Oregon and California that are vital to their culture, to their way of life, to their economies. Maybe this is too simplistic, but it seems that if every drop of water that goes down from this part of the Klamath Basin to help coho, it’s one drop of water that’s not gonna stay here to help sucker fish. How do you think about the competing needs of these suffering species?

Dumont: We, the Klamath Tribes Tribal Council, are in regular consultation with the tribes downstream. We think of them as our brothers and sisters. We’re related, a lot of us to them, literally. And we all know that, from the ocean all the way to the headwaters up here, it’s one ecosystem. It all used to function. It’s not their fault, it’s not our fault. It’s the changes that have been made by the folks who have come in and just fundamentally transformed the entire ecosystem.

We know, as tribal people, as they do, that this all evolved over tens of thousands of years. It’s intricate in its interconnections, all the symbiotic relationships. It’s incredible! And we’re still learning! So, our interactions with them are by and large, very positive. The Yurok are actually wanting to come up and bring a friendship treaty, which I’m very hopeful will happen.

Sometimes we actually do end up in court on opposite sides, but we always know that that’s not anything of our doing, and we talk about that. We openly talk about it. They come and visit us, we go and visit them.

Miller: What’s your hopeful vision for a way to actually achieve the kind of balanced ecosystem that you’d like to see? It doesn’t seem likely that we’re going to get back anytime soon to what the basin looked like in 1905, before the project started. But from this point forward, what’s your vision for how to make a better, more balanced, more healthy ecosystem?

Dumont: Up here in our country, we know that if we could reduce the phosphorus loading by 40%, we believe we can make a big impact on the water quality in the lake. We’ve also learned that the laws are simply not strong enough. Whether you’re talking about the Endangered Species Act, or the state or the federal clean water laws, they’re just not strong enough. The only way that we can really do what we need to do is if we own the land. So, we’re working very hard to acquire ecologically important pieces of land, and to restore those. I think that’s what’s happening down river as well.

Getting the dams out would be huge because as you know, those parasites that are below the dams, part of what’s happening is that they don’t have enough fast moving water natural river flow to flush them out. So if we could get the dams out, restore the natural flow, they wouldn’t be as dependent on the lake for these periodic flushing flows.

Miller: To go back to the first thing you said, a reduction in phosphorus would really help sucker fish. Is that another way of saying a reduction in the amount of farming and ranching that’s happening in this basin? Just fewer cows and less land growing hay or potatoes? Just to speak plainly, is that what you’re saying?

Dumont: Yes. We’ve got to have ag at sustainable levels. I don’t want to mislead anybody, our own folks have a history of ranching. Since the days of the treaty, when the USA wanted us to be ranchers and farmers, we’ve got a long history of doing that, but at sustainable levels, and in a way that doesn’t directly impact the waterways and the springs. So yeah, the agricultural footprint has to be much smaller. It has to be much smarter. You can still drive around out here and see flood irrigating, where folks are simply tapping into springs that used to feed cold clean rivers and irrigating their fields, so the cattle are out there ankle deep. I have a neighbor where there’s water running down the sides of the road. It’s obscene. We have to get a lot smarter about it, and it has to be smaller.

Right now, we’re deeply worried about groundwater. There are wells down around the project going dry, and they’re asking the state for money to deepen those wells, at the same time as they’re not saying anything about the agricultural groundwater that’s being used, that’s causing the problem. Of course, they’re saying that it’s because they can’t get access to the lake water, so they’re drilling ag wells,

Miller: You can look at sucker fish, which as I mentioned, only live here, and see this as a unique story. I’m wondering, in your broader vision of what we’re talking about here, how unique to the Klamath Basin you think everything we’re talking about is?

Dumont: It’s interesting, isn’t it? It is unique in the ways that you’re saying, because the ecosystem is unique and all of these relationships between all these plants and these animals is very unique. But at the same time, global warming is upon us. We’re standing here under all of this smoke, The forests are aflame and uh foresters are telling us in our morning briefings that this is a fire unlike anything that they used to see. It’s so hot and it’s moving so fast that they just have to pull back from it sometimes for safety reasons.

These are all the things that climate scientists told us was going to happen. The aquifers are being drained, the forest fires are going crazy, it was all predicted. So in that way it’s not just unique to us. It’s a big problem and the social ones are only going to follow, as people start migrating and moving around, trying to find places they can live.

Miller: What’s giving you hope right now?

Dumont: Well, what’s giving me hope...

Miller: You know, that question presupposed that you do have hope. Are you hopeful right now?

Dumont: I always have hope. We say that we’ve always been here and we’ll always be here. We’re survivors. And I have a lot of hope because of our young people.

Miller: Even as you’re talking, there’s a helicopter right there dragging what I imagine is a big bucket of water to go fight the fire right now.

Dumont: Yeah, and they’re pretty steady. That’s the building I work in, and they’ve been going over every day since the fire started.

Miller: I interrupted you. You were talking about hope, and I was just trying to point out the helicopter trying to put out a gigantic fire. Please, go on.

Dumont: What I wanted to say was our young people. They’re just increasingly incredible. Our young people are full of energy. They want to fight, figuratively. They are going to school, they’re coming back with educations. Things now are healthy enough here in our community that they’re not wanting to take off and leave. And so it’s very, very hopeful in that way.

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