Klamath River & The Klamath Reclamation Project
The headwaters of the Klamath River are in Oregon, in the tumble of mountains around Crater Lake. Some of the streams in that region feed down into Upper Klamath Lake and then successively down into Lake Euwana at Klamath Falls, Oregon, and eventually into Lower Klamath Lake. which is where it enters Siskiyou County in California. In the upper part of the river, the surrounding country is high desert, but it soon enters dense forested area and picks up the flow from the Scott and Shasta Rivers. It passes Happy Camp and Orleans and then, at Weitchpec , it is joined by the Trinity River. Downstream from Weitchpec, the Klamath passes through Hoopa and Yurok Indian Reservations and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Requa, which is 16 miles south of Crescent City. End to end, it is usually said to be 263 miles in length and drains a total of nearly 16,000 square miles.
The Klamath is an important river for several reasons. Prior to the arrival of the Anglo-European, it sustained several different and distinct Native American cultures. In the early fur hunting period of our history, it was an important source of animal pelts. During the heyday of the Gold Rush it was an important source of instant wealth. For fishermen today, it is important as a spawning ground for salmon. For birders, it is important as habitat and as an important stop on the annual migrations for millions of birds. For farmers, it is important for irrigation. For outdoor enthusiasts it is important for river running and camping. For local communities, the dams on the river generate electricity for the region. Last, but not least, California's urban areas need enormous amounts of water and, from time to time, consideration is given to diverting water to them from the Klamath. These competing demands inevitably create tensions in how the river is managed and the politics surrounding the river are complicated. Feelings among the stakeholders understandably tend to be intense.
The Klamath Reclamation Project
The Klamath Reclamation Project was conceived by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in the very early years of the twentieth century. Construction began in 1906 with the digging of the first canal. The following year saw the construction of the first dam associated with the project. By 1921, the basic project was completed with 225,000 acres of rangeland converted into functioning farmland. The production of electric power was also part of the project. The main bodies of water associated with the project are Clear Lake Reservoir, the Klamath River, Link River, Lost River, Lower Klamath Lake, Upper Klamath Lake and Tule Lake. There are seven dams, 717 miles of water flow canals with two tunnels, 717 miles of diversion channels and 28 pumping stations in the project.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, projects like this one were regarded as greatly beneficial to the nation. A strong agricultural sector was prized as an important mainstay of the national economy. Family farmers were a powerful political force within the country. As that century ended, however, family farming was giving way to larger agricultural concerns and globalization of the economy was beginning to take place. The political power of the remaining family farmers was on the decline. Simultaneously, environmental concerns regarding land and water utilization were on the rise.
In 1988, two fish living in this area, the Lost River Sucker and the Shortnose Sucker, were put on the endangered species list and many believe that water diversion was one of the reasons that they were in danger of disappearing. Salmon runs were also in decline and again water diversion was believed to be an important part of the problem. As the battle over water utilization intensified, farmers and environmentalists became antagonistic to one another. In 2001, water was cut off to farming interests. This sparked a strong political backlash which resulted in the decision being reversed the following year.
Today, federal, state and local governments, along with concerned farmers and wildlife enthusiasts work together to manage the conflicting demands on water in the region. One of the more interesting efforts involved in this process is something called "Walking Wetlands." This program was first conceived of during the 1990s in discussions between academicians and government officials. Experiments began soon thereafter on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refugee. The basic idea is to insert periods of inundation into the normal rotation of crops. A given field is flooded for a period of one to four years and then drained and farmed for another period of time. Wildlife use the field while it is flooded and farmers use it when it is not.
Since the introduction of the Walking Wetlands program in federally owned lands, farm yields have increased significantly, fertilizer and pesticide use has declined, and many wild bird populations have stopped declining and are actually rebounding. Federal lease revenues have also gone up. The program is so successful that efforts are being made to find ways to expand it to privately owned land adjacent to federal lands. Water utilization is still a controversial subject, hotly debated by everyone living in this area, but it is heartening to know that very good people are doing their level best to satisfy the needs of both agriculture and our wildlife.
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