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Fixing the West’s Water Wars


As the Bundys and their merry band of fascists descend on the Klamath River to try and start another war with federal officials there, the reality is that the Klamath River’s water supplies, like the Colorado and Rio Grande and every other major river system in the American West, are far overpromised. This stuff was all worked out in a wetter cycle. And since everyone thought that what they were seeing when the came to the West was “normal,” it has created a disaster with massive legal implications and the potential for very real violence. It’s going to require a complete rethinking of these issues to fix these problems. Who gets the water? How much farming should there be in dry lands? What about 19th century treaties with the tribes? What role should the tribes play in water and fishery management? What about the legacy of homesteading that white Northwesterners really love? And seriously, white Northwesterners love that pioneer thing. Emma Marris has a piece in The Atlantic thinking this through.

Making things right starts with trying to honor the promises made to the people who managed these lands for thousands of years. The inherent rights of the Basin’s tribes predate the arrival of settlers, and were woven into United States law through treaties. Their right to fish and hunt and collect resources means that the U.S. government has an ethical obligation to keep those species from disappearing.

There’s also an increasing recognition that beyond honoring treaties, returning land- and water-management responsibilities to the tribes is smart policy, because they are highly motivated to preserve the ecologies that make their homelands home—and they have access to millennia’s worth of detailed ecological knowledge to help them do just that.

Next, water allocations need to be managed collaboratively by all users, likely in the form of a comprehensive settlement. A plan like this almost came together in the 2010s, but it died in Congress at the last minute. Many of the relationships forged during that process persist. Negotiating the details won’t be easy, but once it is done, it will offer some level of predictability for everyone. Farmers, for example, will know in advance exactly how much compensation they will receive if their water is turned off in a year such as this one, and so they can plan accordingly.

Perhaps the most controversial part of such a settlement would be the idea of reducing the total amount of water promised to agricultural producers in the irrigation network known as the “Klamath Project.” The scientists I spoke with all supported shrinking the project. This would particularly benefit the wildlife refuges, which rely on project water to create wetlands for half of the migrating bird species on the Pacific Flyway. Buying producers out costs money—but so does approving multimillion-dollar relief packages every drought year. And water allocations could be reduced with generous buyouts that would amply compensate producers for returning their share of the lake water to the commonweal. But among project farmers and ranchers, this approach rankles. “The folks we represent do not like that idea whatsoever,” Mark Johnson, the deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association, told me. “They do not like the idea of being bought out. Their grandparents homesteaded. There is a lot of history there.”

Again, this is the real issue. White farmers want the land to remain controlled by white farmers with no changes to how things were done a century ago. It’s the farming equivalent of the rancher freakout when environmentalists started to use the free market to buy up cattle claims on the National Forests are retire them, leading some states to attempt to make this practice illegal. Any land use other than their land use is outrageous. And so for all the whining they do about Big Government, they, like all conservatives, are happy to use the power of the state to enforce their own preferences. What to do about this?

A soft approach would be to reduce the promises made by the project opportunistically, as producers without interested heirs retire, nibbling away at the total water allocation without suddenly unraveling agricultural communities. Farmers who stay may have to change their business model, eventually, moving away from rigid contracts for prespecified amounts and grades of crops that don’t allow for unpredictable water conditions. These farmers would need to be supported as they experiment with more flexible approaches, including lower-water crops, new breeds, and new styles of irrigation. The capital investments required to quickly switch to a new crop rotation can be enormous.

In addition, the government could payfarmers to stay and use part of their water to restore wetland or create bird habitat on their property—to grow swans and pelicans and baby C’waam and Koptu—either permanently or in rotation between years of growing crops.

This is already happening at a small scale. Some farmers in the Basin agree to leave half of their grain standing for birds to eat or keep a portion of their fields flooded for migrating waterfowl to use as habitat. (As a bonus, the floodwater kills many crop pests.) “It is amazing bird habitat, and you can plant organic crops in the field the following year and the productivity is through the roof,” Johnson said. The identity of the Western rancher or the farmer—already tied to stewardship of the land—is expanding to encompass cultivating nonfood plants and animals.

The main question, in a theoretical framework anyway, is whether such a soft approach can handle the problem before all the salmon in the Klamath runs go extinct. But the reality of life in the West means that such a soft approach is probably the best we can hope for.

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