Kayaking the Klamath while dodging the dams

Writers on the Range – by Tyler Williams

The Klamath is a 300-mile-long waterway traveling from Oregon’s Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Once, it was the third-most productive salmon fishing river in North America.

Today, Klamath River salmon are approaching extinction, thanks mainly to six dams that span the upper river. But things might change dramatically if the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement becomes reality — four of the Klamath dams could be slated for removal. It would be a river-restoration project unprecedented in scale, and environmental groups are ecstatic at the possibility.

To see the unfolding Klamath story first-hand, I decided to kayak the entire length of the river, starting at the aptly named Spring Creek where boiling pots of sand danced on the bottom of the creek. Water gushed into the stream from below, clean and beautiful. But several hours later, the scene had changed when I arrived at a fixture of the southern Oregon landscape — Klamath Lake. A rank odor wafted on the air, and billions of tiny green algae flecks floated on the surface of the water. I had only paddled 10 miles, but I was already a world away from the bubbling purity of Spring Creek.

Paddling was not always possible. I stood in astonished silence, wondering how I would make it downstream on a tiny spout of water that emanated from one of the Klamath River’s dams. The flow was reminiscent of a desert watercourse in my home of Arizona, not a major river in the Pacific Northwest. Yet this — and not Spring Creek – better describes today’s Klamath River.

It is a river serving many masters: Farmers demand water for irrigation, Indians fight for their share of the dwindling salmon, and we all flip light switches from the dam-supported power grid. The Klamath embodies all that is at stake regarding water issues in the West.

Over the next week, I came to see the Klamath as a tamed, utilitarian river. I drifted past the A Canal, where roughly half the river is siphoned into a massive plumbing project that brings water to 240,000 acres of farmland. I rode returned irrigation effluent through whitewater canyons, and saw the river vanish into reservoirs four different times. Once, it even disappeared into a steel grate, leaving me with a rain-gutter trickle.

During a re-supply stop, I asked an old-timer in a coffee shop what he thought of the dams coming down. Not surprisingly, he said, “It’s not a good idea.” But, he added, “If the fish don’t get their water, they’ll die, so they need it. But a man who has to water his hay, he needs it, too.” Many in this region are now fourth-generation farmers. To them, watering the hay is as inextricably linked to the rhythms of life as swimming upstream is for the salmon.

Two days from the river mouth, I saw the other side of the issue. “Hello, there,” a Yurok Indian called out from the captain’s chair of his fishing boat. “Hello,” I replied, as I paddled near. The man asked me where I’d been, and where I was going. Then he quickly jumped to dam politics.

“There’s a meeting tonight. We’re trying to get those dams outta there,” he said. “Us and the farmers, we’re working side by side right now,” he said. “We told them we wouldn’t sue them, so they’re with us. They don’t like the word sue.” Then he reached the heart of the matter. “They say they’ll go bankrupt without water, but this river — it’s all we’ve got.”

He repeated the same chorus I’ve heard from fisherman on rivers throughout the West Coast: “I only caught 50 fish this spring.” I waited. “Fifty fish!” he repeated. “That’s not many — I have to feed a lot of people.”

As I shoved back into the current, I wished him good luck with the fall salmon run. “Oh, they’ll come back,” he reassured me. I was less optimistic, dams or no dams.

Fish die and go extinct for many reasons, but on the lower Klamath, warm water temperatures are often tagged as the main problem. Warmer water allows for more bacterial pathogens to develop, thus increasing the chances that disease will break out in the fish. Then there are the dams that block fish from reaching their historic spawning beds upriver. This time, there may be a real chance that the Klamath dams will come down. The question for the salmon is whether it will be too late.

Tyler Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.