Liquid gold


Don Gentry navigates Klamath Basin water rights.

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Don Gentry tried not to breathe. A sudden algae bloom in Agency Lake in 1995 was killing hundreds of fish, and Gentry, who was working for the Klamath Tribes Natural Resource Department, was on the deck of a fiberglass Boston Whaler, tasked with the unpleasant job of collecting dead fish to identify which species had died at what age. When algae grows quickly over the top of a lake on a hot summer day, the drastic change in pH of the water and the lack of available oxygen can be lethal to fish. 

Gentry motored through the bright green water, the acrid smell of rotting sewage and decaying fish turning his stomach. The Klamath Tribes Natural Resources Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were tracking Lost River suckers (“c’waam” in Klamath) and shortnose suckers (“qapdo”), both native to Southern Oregon and Northern California, and both historic staples of the Klamath and Modoc tribes. The shortnose sucker was already on the federal government’s list of endangered species. In 2001 the Lost River sucker would be added to that list.

“My dad taught me how to catch these fish,” Gentry, 59 years old now and the chairman of the Klamath Tribe, says matter of factly. He remembers feeling angry as he looked at the dead fish, some of which weighed 20 pounds, bobbing belly up in the water that day. “Sharing the catch with elders is a big part of our lifestyle.” 

Gentry, who represents 4,600 registered members of the Klamath Tribes, is a key player in brokering the latest agreement between those with vested interests in the Klamath Basin’s water, which has been under intense negotiation for the past eight months. The Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement defines the means to achieve water savings described in a previous landmark agreement, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), and would be largely funded by the KBRA. These agreements in turn are linked to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), which specifies means to remove the lower four Klamath dams. The KBRA and KHSA were signed by more than 45 Klamath stakeholders (ranchers, agriculturalists, wildlife protection groups, water conservationists and other businesses on both sides of the state border) four years ago, although legislation required to implement the agreements has yet to be passed.

The history of water rights, as well as the degradation of the Klamath Basin and who is responsible for cleaning it up, is mind-bogglingly complicated and filled with contention. Still, the issue of degraded rivers, fish die-offs, and the need for water for cattle, farming, and wildlife rehabilitation all boils down to one simple truth: Too many people in Southern Oregon and Northern California have too great a need for too little water. 

Completed in March, the Upper Klamath agreement describes how to best allocate the water in the Upper Basin to each of the stakeholders. Gentry thinks the arrangement reached provides a balanced use of water for both fisheries and agriculture. The biggest change, he says, is that the actual amount of water in the Basin at any given time, which changes from year to year, will be taken into consideration when water is allocated. The Klamath Tribes are interested in solving the immediate problems but also looking toward the future, hoping to clean up the Klamath enough to get salmon back and undo years of riparian damage. (The Klamath River was once the third most productive salmon river in the United States, but damming and habitat destruction decimated their populations.) 

Gentry believes you can’t understand the complexity of the problems with who has what right to how much water in the Klamath Basin without going back to the early 1950s, when the United States government terminated its relationship with the Klamath Tribes — among the wealthiest and best organized in the nation — through an Act of Congress that was overturned some 30 years later. Though treaty agreements initially affirmed the Klamath’s seniority over water rights (since “time immemorial”), tribal termination set the scene for decades of fighting. This new agreement stipulates: 30,000 acre-feet of water must be added each year into the streams that are tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake (which will help protect the tribes’ fishing interests and aquatic wildlife); a riparian restoration project; and a $40 million economic development fund for the Klamath Tribes.

This basin encompasses some 8,000 square miles and is located in South-Central Oregon and Northeastern California, with 5,600 square miles primarily in Klamath County, according to an analysis done by the U.S. Geological Survey. Because of chronic water shortages, the Klamath Basin has received federal emergency relief averaging $17 million a year, with a high of $60 million one year, since 2001. Proponents of the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, including Mike Gerel, water program director of Sustainable Northwest, argue that though it carries a hefty price tag ($550 million), it will offer a net savings to the federal government, help protect a total of $750 million in annual economic value already produced by farming ($600 million) and commercial fishing industries ($150 million), sustain or create thousands of jobs, and help revitalize the mostly rural communities that have been negatively affected by chronic water shortages.

Gentry’s father was part Klamath and part Modoc, two tribes that historically did not get along. (“You live on a reservation together, things happen,” Gentry laughs). A grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of three, Gentry earned a certificate of Christian ministry through Pacific Bible College’s extension program in Chiloquin, where he lives and where the Klamath Tribes are headquartered. 

But if Gentry is deeply spiritual, he is also pragmatic. “I’m not afraid to communicate what I believe is best for our people,” he says, pointing to cell phones in each pocket, one for personal use and one for business. He considers himself a “servant leader” serving the Klamath and says he’s “learned to not take things personal.” Gentry explains water allocation is particularly urgent and charged this spring, as Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought in California in January, and Gov. John Kitzhaber declared drought emergencies in Klamath, Lake, Harney and Malheur counties in February, then declaring a drought in Crook County in April and in Jackson County in May. Last year, because of similar drought conditions, the Klamath exercised their water rights and shut off irrigation to Upper Klamath cattle ranches to protect tribal fisheries causing major difficulties and loss of revenue for ranchers. Federal marshals were called in.

Past a parched field of wild-growing sagebush and bitterbrush, the Sprague and Williamson rivers converge behind the Klamath Tribes’ administrative offices, tributaries to the Klamath Lake that are part of the agreement. Water rushes over the rocks, and willow saplings are beginning to bud. A trio of magpies “wick wick” in the blue sky above. Trash is tangled in the undergrowth: a crushed aluminum can, a discarded pack of cigarettes, a yellow plastic lid.

According to the Klamath Facilities Removal Final Environmental Impact Statement, implementation of KBRA and KHSA is projected to create $9.6 million in economic output for the Klamath Tribes. But the KBRA and KHSA have yet to get the political support needed to become law. Though the new agreement was signed by Gov. Kitzhaber in a ceremony on April 18, it still has to be approved by the federal legislature. “There’s a Klamath saying: ‘If all that we had to share with a visitor was a flea, we’d share that flea.’ That remains a core value,” Gentry says. “But we’ll also protect ourselves.” If the legislature does not approve the agreement, the Klamath Tribes plan to go to court. 

“Our people watched Mount Mazama erupt. Archaeological evidence shows we’ve been in this area for 15,000 years. We have a spiritual responsibility to be stewards over this land,” Gentry says, “and we have a right to this water.”