Photo Credit: Dan Meyers
Those interested in the historical and contemporary realities of the Klamath River Basin, should be excited to peruse an exceptional journalistic resource recently made available online. “Project Klamath,” is a collection of articles presented by the Klamath Falls Herald and News and Report for America, an organization whose “mission is to strengthen our communities and our democracy through local journalism that is truthful, fearless, fair and smart.” It was funded by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, a journalism project created “to advance science, engineering, policy, social science, design, the humanities, and the arts toward a people-centric and planet-positive future.”
Reporter Alex Schwartz and photographer Arden Barnes have collaborated to produce five in-depth examinations of the contributing factors and potential outcomes of the ongoing drought experienced throughout Western states and its various impacts on the ecologically disrupted Klamath Basin. The series illustrates the ways that environmental impacts caused by the Klamath Project, which drained marshlands and lakes in the Upper Basin in the early 20th century to create farmland, and the installation of numerous hydroelectric dams along the length of the Klamath River, have coupled with climate change to generate ecologically disastrous conditions for people, wildlife, and landscapes throughout the Klamath Basin.
The series begins with an article titled “The Lake in the Sky,” that describes the realities of rising temperatures throughout the Klamath Basin and the ways that shifting hydrological norms effect the region’s fire-adapted ecosystems. Via an analysis of historical and current rainfall, snowpack and both regional and global climate conditions, the piece demonstrates the changing realities of the the Klamath Basin’s relationship with water amidst shifting climate realities.
Part Two of the series, “Fish and Chips,” illustrates the connection between dwindling salmon runs, threatened Indigenous cultural survival, and the ongoing struggle of Upper Basin farmers and ranchers. The piece shows the entwined nature of the relationships between various groups of people who depend on the Klamath Basin’s water for their livelihoods – whether one’s living is dependent on Tribal or commercial fisheries or on irrigation for cattle or crops, the Klamath is a tenuous lifeline that is becoming less predictable as drought conditions continue to impact the region.
“Heal the People, Heal the Land,” focuses, in greater detail, on the ways that environmental degradation and ecological disruption interact with the well-being of communities throughout the Basin. The article focuses on the outcomes experienced by Klamath River tribes from the Upper Basin to the River’s mouth. The Klamath Tribes – Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin – as well as their downriver neighbors – the Karuk, Hoopa, and Yurok – have endured ecological disruptions that have threatened their cultural survival. While the relationships between the Tribes and Federal and State governments have changed from the time of legalized bounty hunting, land-theft, and mission schools, Tribes are still enduring the degradation of their ancestral homelands. Native peoples are still at considerable risk from the destruction of fisheries they have depended on since time immemorial, and the far-reaching implications of ecological reorganization and disruption exemplified throughout the Basin.
The fourth article in the series, titled “Blockage,” describes the multitude of ways that the installation of dams and the draining of bodies of water in the Klamath Basin has reformatted the hydrological reality of the region at the detriment of all involved parties. Schwartz describes the geological history of the Basin and the ways that its geological formations have been altered by various reclamation and development projects. The piece describes the installation of hydroelectric dams and recent efforts to have the dams removed under the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement before diving into the various cultural and agricultural realities that those projects have contributed to. From the potato farmers in Klamath Falls that supply spuds to In-N-Out and Walmart in far away communities to efforts by the Yurok Tribe to create a “food village,” the article draws focus to the myriad of food-based concerns that exist in the Basin.
The fifth and final segment of the series, titled “Two Basins in 2050,” tells two divergent, speculative stories of how the Klamath Basin might look in the next 30-odd years. One story describes a world where the trajectory of climate change has been allowed to unravel unchecked – a dystopian reality in which megacorporations utilize imminent domain to sweep up usable ag land in the name of public good – a future where the water is gone, and birds no longer sing.
The alternative narrative is more hopeful. People have embraced new ways of tending the land. They have utilized emerging technologies in conjunction with culturally informed management techniques to make the Basin “a model for collaboration in the climate change era.” In this timeline people worked hard to ensure that they were able to continue living in a Basin with environmental stability and economic opportunities that were interwoven, not in opposition to one another.
“Project Klamath,” is an example of deep-reaching, thoughtful, and intelligent journalism. It is well worth a thorough read by all Klamath Basin residents and anyone interested in the complexities of the region and the ways that communities can choose to confront the evolving dynamics of climate change. It tells a historically informed story about why things are the way they are in the Basin while reminding readers of their own agency in shaping the future.