National News

Water war along California-Oregon border pits growers against tribes

TULELAKE, Calif. -- As one of the tensest fights for water in the West closes in, residents in this town along the rural California-Oregon border are moving out.

Posted Updated

Kurtis Alexander
, San Francisco Chronicle

TULELAKE, Calif. -- As one of the tensest fights for water in the West closes in, residents in this town along the rural California-Oregon border are moving out.

The sidewalks are emptier. The downtown is a ghostly strip of vacant storefronts, struggling lunch spots and liquor stores. The highway nearby is flanked by abandoned silos and crumbling produce warehouses.

The Klamath River has run low, and the economic fallout of a water shortage brought on by years of drought has gripped this farming community, even as the Trump administration intervenes to help find relief for the unrelenting climate challenge. The last time anxieties over water ran so high in Tulelake and the surrounding basin, protests broke out and U.S. marshals were called in to keep the peace. That was 17 years ago.

Pulling his pickup truck to a stop outside of town on a recent morning, Gary Wright, 63, looked across his 4,800-acre ranch, set amid brown hills beneath a distant Mount Shasta. He wondered whether his thirsty alfalfa would live to see another cutting.

Farther north, near the headwaters of the Klamath River, Devery Saluskin, 41, a member of the Klamath Tribes, is worried about fish populations. He fears the catch in local lakes and streams that has sustained his people for millennia will perish if the fish don't get more clean water.

The competing concerns in this border region 350 miles north of San Francisco have produced lawsuits, driven a wedge between farmers and American Indians, and even divided households.

Wright and Saluskin stand at opposite ends of the conflict. The two men are also family, once close -- but that has changed.

The upper Klamath Basin, which stretches from southern Oregon's high deserts to the mountains of Northern California, gets much of its water from the federally operated Klamath Project.

Dating to 1906, the enormous waterworks anchored by Upper Klamath Lake, where the Klamath River begins its 250-mile journey to sea, consists of seven dams and hundreds of miles of canals. It irrigates a region worth more than $300 million annually in potatoes, onions, sugar beets and other crops, including niches such as mint for tea and Tulelake horseradish.

In addition to serving farmers, federal project managers are required to maintain sufficient water downstream in the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon as well as upstream in the vast yet shallow Upper Klamath Lake for endangered suckerfish.

After years of drought and declining fish numbers, however, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has faced a flurry of litigation over how it's balancing the project's supplies.

The latest lawsuit, brought by the Klamath Tribes in May, seeks more water for two endangered species of suckers, a bottom-dwelling fish that American Indians once caught by the thousands. Today, those fish -- the shortnose sucker and the Lost River sucker -- are so scarce that the tribe is permitted to net them only for ceremony.

``We've been denied the fish for many years,'' said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, which consists of three American Indian groups that have long inhabited the area and now stand as one. ``Those fish are just as important to our people as the farms are to the farmers.''

Although the suckers haven't been caught in significant numbers for decades, tribal members say restoring their populations could bring back a staple of their traditional diet. It also would help them reclaim a part of their identity.

Gentry, who grew up fishing for suckers with his dad, said he was taught that as long as the fish are healthy, his people will be healthy.

Tribal members blame the very construction of the Klamath Project a century ago for crippling the natural fish habitat and the basin their ancestors settled. The tribe today administers a small amount of reservation land near Upper Klamath Lake, but most of the 5,300 members live within the region's cities and towns.

``We really believe we have to do everything we can to protect those fish from going extinct,'' Gentry said. ``Once they're gone, they're gone.''

On Friday, a federal judge in San Francisco heard the tribe's case for more water. A decision on whether to grant the request, which may be good for the suckers but is worrisome for farmers, could come any day.

Wright, the alfalfa grower, has harvested two cuttings of his crop this year, some of which he feeds to his 300 head of cattle and some of which he sells. If the court curtails the project's deliveries, potentially shutting off the irrigation water, however, he won't get another cutting.

``Without that income, I don't make my tractor payment. I don't make my land payment,'' he said. ``You got millions of dollars worth of crops planted across the basin, and they're going to dry up.''

The region has historically received about 11 inches of rain annually. In some of the recent drought years, it's been closer to half that. With limited water from wells, irrigation from the Klamath Project is a must during the relatively short growing season.

But already the 1,200 farms in California and Oregon that get water from the project are receiving less than they have in the past. Assuming there isn't a shutoff, they will see no more than 60 percent of their annual allotment this year, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Many compare the situation to 2001, when water became similarly scarce. That year, a group of growers stormed an irrigation canal with crowbars and blowtorches and forced open a headgate to release supplies. Federal marshals responded, but so did thousands of sympathizers in what became known as the ``bucket brigade'' protest.

The George W. Bush administration got involved, and despite concerns about killing suckers and salmon, more water was eventually provided to irrigate.

President Trump has expressed support for the agricultural industry, too, pledging broadly during past visits to California that more water would come.

Alan Mikkelsen, senior adviser to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has been working with the feuding factions, trying to broker a deal to boost supplies for farmers while still protecting fish. He said the effort has been slow.

``To be really blunt, we have too much land and too little water right now,'' Mikkelsen said.

The lack of progress has only left residents more frustrated.

``People here are getting desperate,'' Wright said. ``I do fear the worst. If our water is cut, there will be protests, and it may be ugly.''

Saluskin, a member of the Klamath Tribe's governing council who grew up in Tulelake, where he married Wright's daughter, said he wants something worked out between the growers and the American Indians.

``I went swimming in those (irrigation) ditches. I got my first jobs driving tractors. The farming community is my home,'' Saluskin said, speaking as an individual and not as a tribal representative. ``Maybe we could all go to the top of the mountain and pray together for solutions.''

He conceded, however, that years of talk haven't worked: ``These are completely different worlds we're dealing with,'' he said.

Wright's daughter and Saluskin divorced years ago, but the family's differences over water remain an issue for the couple's two children.

``I feel sorry for my grandchildren,'' said Wright, who hasn't spoken much to Saluskin, even though their circles still overlap, like at a Tulelake high school graduation. ``My grandchildren shouldn't have to be made to choose between two heritages.''

In town, residents, business owners and civic leaders feel paralyzed by the water war.

``Farming is still our largest base of economic support, but as the farmers have to cut back, they don't hire,'' said Tulelake Mayor Hank Ebinger. ``Families leave and take their kids out of the local schools, and school enrollment declines. We've become smaller and smaller.''

The City Council has been looking for ways to attract new business, Ebinger said, but between the drought and a cheaper cost of living across the nearby border in Oregon, it's been tough. At last count, the community's population had slipped below 1,000.

Scott Seus, a farmer who grew up in Tulelake and whose father and grandfather worked the land before he did, already has seen his hometown take too many hits.

He lamented the closure of his elementary school south of Tulelake and the nearby Frosty House, where he has memories of burgers and soft serve. A group of residents pooled money together to resurrect the ice cream shop, but it was only a matter of time before it shut down again.

Downtown, a hardware store and a credit union are among the most recent businesses to board up.

While Seus has prepared his farm for the worst, leaving some of his fields where he would usually plant onions or peppermint empty to make sure he doesn't lose his investment if the spigot shuts off, he knows others haven't prepared.

``This would be the biggest disaster for an American farm community that's been seen,'' he said.

At Ross Market, one of the businesses still operating in town, the line of farmworkers that gathers outside each morning to buy energy drinks and chips before heading to the fields is much shorter than it was last year, said the owner's daughter, Amber Neibert. She's been working at the store -- without pay -- for years.

``There's just no opportunities here anymore,'' Neibert said as she graded math tests for summer school, one of her side jobs that allows her to stay in town.

Her brother recently moved to Georgia after meeting a woman there over the internet, she said, and her sister works in the Bay Area as a medical assistant. Her 19-year-old son relocated to Washington state.

``I believe so much in this area,'' she said. ``It really is a good place to live. I'm going to stick it out as long as I can.''

A few years ago there was hope. The leaders of the basin's various interest groups had come together to figure out a way to share the water.

Farmers committed to restrictions in exchange for a guaranteed annual supply, while American Indian leaders, environmentalists and fishing groups agreed to less water for fish in return for wildlife protections, including removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River.

While the landmark deal was approved by the U.S. Interior Department as well as the governors of California and Oregon, Congress failed to give the go-ahead. Many in the nation's capitol, including Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., did not want to see the dams go away.

Soon, the legal threats were flying again. And the hostilities resurfaced.

At Bigoni's Pizza Barn just across the Oregon border, where farmers gather for home-cooked food, Pepsi and pitchers of beer, the renewed frustration is palpable.

``The Indians aren't the only people who have a history here,'' said one customer, noting families that have tended their land since World War II. ``Their actions are going to kill this community.''

Kristin Bigoni, who runs the restaurant with her mother, said she tries to stay clear of the politics. But she acknowledged that her fate, too, hinges on what happens with water.

``If the farmers don't come in, I don't have a business,'' she said, explaining that revenue has already begun to drop and that just one person remains on payroll, compared with three last year.

The lone employee is Tayla Saluskin, 19, Devery Saluskin's daughter and Wright's granddaughter. Despite the strong opinions she hears from both her family and diners, she is mum on the issue. She said it's safer that way.

``Whatever side I'd take, it seems like I'd be disrespectful,'' she said. ``I feel like as a daughter, I should be there for my dad. But if I go with him, it's almost like I'm disrespecting my grandfather or my mom.''

Tayla Saluskin, a Tulelake resident, attends college in Klamath Falls in hope of pursuing a career off the farm -- in dental hygiene. Still, she said, she can't get away from the water debate. During an interview for a scholarship recently, she was asked whom she supports.

``I honestly haven't figured out where I stand,'' she said. ``I identify as Native American. I'm also very much a country girl. I grew up with brandings and rodeos.

''I feel like it's been a battle for me, too.``

Copyright 2023 San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.