Indigenous nations, farmers, and ranchers throughout the Klamath Basin in the Pacific Northwest reached an agreement on Wednesday to collaborate on ecosystem restoration projects and to improve water supply for agriculture. 

The memorandum between the Klamath Tribes, Yurok Tribe, and Klamath Water Users Association, which represents agricultural producers across 17,000 acres in both California and Oregon, serves as a major step in a long-running battle over access to water as the Klamath River dries up and federal officials cut flows to tribes and producers.

Drought in the region has often pitted Indigenous peoples and endangered fish against more than 1,000 farms that rely on the same water for their crops. In 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off irrigation water to farmers in the midst of a drought, prompting protests from farmers and illegal water releases. Two decades later, amid another drought, the agency cut water to farmers to preserve endangered suckerfish, again heightening tensions. ”It’s not safe for Natives to be out in farmland during a drought year,” Joey Gentry, a member of the Klamath Tribes, told Inside Climate News after the 2021 water cuts. 

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

In 2022, tribes won a long-running campaign to convince the federal government to remove four dams that stopped salmon from reaching their spawning grounds, marking a major win for Indigenous communities that rely on the Klamath. Now, Clayton Dumont, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, says the new agreement goes even further.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“We’re nowhere near finished, but this is a really strong beginning,” he said. “Getting adversaries like this together in a room and having to sit through a lot of bitterness to get to a point where we are now, I think it’s not just commendable, it’s pretty miraculous.”

Klamath Tribes were forced to cede 23 million acres in Oregon and California to settlers in exchange for a reservation, but an 1864 treaty gave the tribe the right to hunt and fish on those ceded lands forever. However, fishing hasn’t been consistently possible with drought and conflicting demands for water. 

“What’s at stake is our very livelihood, our culture, our identities, our way of life,” Dumont said. 

In the next month, tribes and agricultural producers will meet to decide on restoration projects that could be completed within the next two years and supported through existing federal or state programs. After the priorities are decided, officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior will identify both existing funding and new funding sources for the projects. The agency also plans to release more than $72 million to modernize agricultural infrastructure and restore the ecosystem in Klamath Basin.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Officials from the Klamath Water Users Association said in a press release that working together with the tribes will make both parties more effective in obtaining state and federal funding to support the region.  

“I am hoping that this MOU will be the first step to bring all the different entities together to work on a solution to the conflicts over water that have hampered this region for decades,” said Tracey Liskey, president of the Klamath Water Users Association Board of Directors. “The water users want fish in our rivers and lakes and water in our irrigation ditches. This way, we all can have a prosperous way of life in the basin.” 

Dumont says it helped that the administrations locally, statewide, and federally were all supportive of this agreement. However, he added that there’s no guarantee that the MOU will have any staying power after November.

“If the election goes the wrong way, all of this could dry up really quickly,” Dumont said.