Rough Water: The Story Behind What Could be the Largest Dam Removal in History

Posted by Earth Island Journal

Maybe the Klamath River basin would have turned itself around without Jeff Mitchell. Back in 2001, at the pinnacle of the conflict over the river’s fate, when the Klamath earned its reputation as the most contentious river basin in the country, Mitchell planted a seed. Thanks to a drought and a resulting Interior Department decision to protect the river’s endangered fish stocks, delivery of Klamath water to California and Oregon farmers was cut off mid-season, and they were livid. They blamed the Endangered Species Act, the federal government that enforced it, and the basin’s salmon-centric Indians who considered irrigation a death sentence for their cultures. The basin divided up, farmers and ranchers on one side, Indians and commercial fishermen on the other. They sued one another, denounced one another in the press, and hired lobbyists to pass legislation undermining one another. Drunken goose-hunters discharged shotguns over the heads of Indians and shot up storefronts in the largely tribal town of Chiloquin, Oregon. An alcohol-fueled argument over water there prompted a white boy to kick in the head of a young Indian, killing him.
 
Mitchell sports two long black braids that instantly establish his identity as a Native American—in fact, he’s a leader of the three-tribe confederation known as the Klamath Tribes of Oregon. In the midst of the conflagration, when Indians weren’t exactly a welcome sight in farming territory, Mitchell knocked on farmers’ doors to express his condolences for their waterless plight. His intent was to “help the farmers to understand that the tribes weren’t going to leave them isolated through this ordeal,” and to explain that he could sympathize because his tribe had endured comparable trials. On his way to a conversation with approachable farmers in the back of a restaurant, he had to walk through the main dining room, filled with less hospitable farmers who’d been idled by the water cut-off. “Everybody just stopped and stared at me, and some of those stares were pretty icy,” Mitchell says. “That was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.” If his gesture registered, the evidence at the time was scant—most farmers thought reconciliation with Indians was an unimaginable, even subversive idea.
 
It’s possible, too, that the Klamath basin would have arrived at an agreement to restore the river without Becky Hyde. Distressed by the Klamath system’s drastic environmental decline, she and her husband Taylor moved their cattle ranch in 2003 to a badly eroded, thoroughly overgrazed parcel of stubble straddling the Sycan River, a Klamath tributary. If restoration could be done here, it could be done anywhere, they figured, and immediately set to the task. Like virtually all the basin’s other residents, the Hydes are not wealthy, and the production constraints they placed on the land to promote its health—including cutting their herd to a fraction of its former size—dramatically reduced their ranch’s potential income. They also designed a conservation easement that obligated future owners to continue promoting the land’s recovery; then, stunningly, they turned over trusteeship of the property to the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, effectively sharing the land’s stewardship with the Native Americans who’d once lived on it. Like the farmers, most Klamath ranchers chiefly viewed Indians as threats to their water supply, and the Hydes’ act leapt across the Indian/rancher chasm. One of Becky’s rewards was a death threat.
 
Maybe the agreement announced in January to take down four dams on the Klamath, opening the way for river restoration, would have happened without Troy Fletcher, or Steve Kandra, or Greg Addington. Fletcher, a leader of the Yurok tribe, was notorious among farmers for his vitriolic denunciations of them, but at a meeting of basin leaders in 2005, he suggested that both sides stop attacking each other in the media—and, surprisingly, the farmers agreed. That led to an end of public recrimination and the beginning of trust-building. Kandra, a farmer who filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over the 2001 water cutoff, turned around a few years later and worked toward reconciliation with the tribes, provoking outrage from fellow farmers. Addington, who heads the farmers’ association, endured fierce criticism for his conciliatory negotiating stance. Basin allegiances became so jumbled, he said, “My friends are my enemies, and my enemies are my friends.”
 
None of these courageous acts was indispensable, but together their impact was incalculable: At a time when cooperation among basin inhabitants seemed far-fetched, they introduced the idea that reason and compassion could overcome hatred. It’s now clear that Mitchell, the Hydes, Fletcher, Addington, Kandra are pathfinders whose concern for the watershed’s well-being has opened the way for the world’s biggest dam removal project, the key component of one of the world’s largest and least likely river restoration plans.

This piece appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Earth Island Journal.

Photo by Robert Dawson, courtesy of Earth Island Journal