Fish are life: environmental justice on the Klamath
On the Klamath, fish are life. The river is home to native tribes with salmon-based subsistence cultures, and its salmon runs support commercial fishing families all along the West Coast. As Klamath dams and other impacts destroy water quality and decimate fish, thousands of people manage poverty, hunger, and diet-related disease.
Klamath River tribal people have been leaders of the international movement to un-dam and restore the Klamath for over a decade.They have taken their cultural stories and traditions around the world to demand justice from dam-owners and regulators, and their work has inspired award-winning independent films and has been documented in major publications.
Many Klamath tribal people speak their native languages, practice traditional ceremonies and handicraft, and maintain millenia-old subsistence practices, harvesting freshwater mussels, salmon, sturgeon and lamprey. The lower Klamath is home to California's three largest tribes, the Karuk (upriver), Yurok (downriver), and Hoopa, as well as Quartz Valley Indian Reservation and the Resighini Rancheria. The Klamath Tribes of Oregon are based in Chiloquin.
The commercial salmon fishing industry has been hit hard by declining runs on the Klamath, the third largest river on the West Coast. Family fishermen have seen their way of life challenged by closed seasons due to poor salmon returns on the Klamath. Responding to this economic crisis has cost the government millions of dollars in disaster relief.
Klamath public health issues
Toxic Algae: Dam-caused toxic algae impacts everyone who uses the river for recreation and fishing, but has particular impacts on tribal people who must immerse in the river ceremonially. Documented by the Karuk Tribe at levels thousands of times what the World Health Organization considers a risk to human health, the algae blooms created by PacifiCorp's warm and stagnant reservoirs annually spread downriver, prompting mandatory health warnings at public access points for nearly 200 miles to the river's mouth. Toxic algae exposure can cause rashes, nausea, and vomiting as well as tumor growth and death from liver failure in severe cases. Scientists have also documented dangerous levels of toxic algae bioaccumulating in downriver mussels eaten by tribes, and in the fillets of reservoir gamefish. After extensive study and despite lobbying from PacifiCorp, California's State Water Board has stated publicly that dam removal may be the only way to solve the Klamath's dangerous toxic algae problem.
Loss of traditional diet: Sociologist Kari Norgaard has worked with the Karuk Tribe to study how dams and other impacts have affected traditional diets on the Klamath. She found that in contrast to the 450 lbs of salmon once consumed per person per year, Karuk people are now limited to just 5 lbs of fish per person per year. At the same time, rates of diabetes and heart disease ballooned in the tribe, now 3 and 4 times the national average, respectively. She also connects loss of traditional food sources to chronic hunger and poverty rates among the Klamath's rural native population, by some measures among the worst in California. Many tribal people in the Klamath watershed also do not have access to basic power and internet services.
E. coli bacteria: E. coli bacteria in Klamath River tributaries has been documented by Klamath Riverkeeper and the Quartz Valley Indian Reservation. E. coli outbreaks are often associated with livestock use and reduced water quality and quantity. Symptoms of E. coli exposure include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. E. coli can become fatal for children, the elderly, or people with compromised immune systems.
KRK's environmental justice programs
KRK acts holistically to address environmental and public health on the Klamath. Our staff and Board of Directors are representative of the Klamath's amazing cultural diversity, and we have worked strategically with the Karuk Tribe and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations for many years.
We support the Klamath Justice Coalition, and levy our resources toward empowering Klamath people to speak up for and protect their river. Our programs offer leadership training, outreach materials, and travel assistance for tribal people who want to have an impact on the complex regulatory processes that govern the fate of Klamath salmon. We recognize tribal people as the original "keepers" of the Klamath - lack of access to organizing resources or travel funds should not prevent them from making their voice heard on behalf of the river today. If you'd like to support these programs, please donate or become a member of KRK.
Media, studies, & resources
- KRK Klamath River public health factsheet - Download the PDF
- Upstream Battle
- River of Renewal
- Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative (find feature length Solving the Klamath Crisis by scrolling down)
- Doctor's Orders: Undam the Klamath by Diana Hartel, High Country News May 16, 2011
- Tribe Fights Dams to get Diet Back, Washington Post cover story, 1/29/05
- The Klamath Basin Tribal Water Quality Workgroup publishes toxic algae and other water quality reports from the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Quartz Valley, and Resighini Rancheria environmental and water quality departments.
- Sociologist Kari Norgaard's research page includes links to her research into traditional nutrition on the Klamath
- Blue Green Algae and Harmful Blooms, California State Water Quality Resources Board
Research & studies
- California EPA Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Microcystins: A brief overview of their toxicity and effects, 2009
- Chorus, Ingrid and J. Bartram, eds. Toxic cyanobacteria in water: A guide to their public health consequences, monitoring and management. London: E&FN Spon (published on behalf of the World Health Organization), 1999.
- Kann, J. and C. Bowman. 2012. Middle Klamath River Toxic Cyanobacteria Trends, 2010. Aquatic Ecosystem Sciences LLC. and Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. 42 pp.
- Kann, Jacob and Susan Corum. Summary of 2005 toxic Microcystis aeruginosa in Copco and Irongate Reservoirs on the Klamath River, CA – Technical Memorandum to the Karuk Tribe, 2005.
- Kann, Jacob. Microcystis aeruginosa Occurrence in the Klamath River System of Southern Oregon and Northern California - Technical memorandum to the Yurok Tribe, 2006.
- Kann, Jacob. Microcystin bioaccumulation in Klamath River fish and freshwater mussel tissue – Technical memorandum to the Karuk Tribe, 2008.
- Karuk Tribe of California. 2006. Comments on Draft EIS in Klamath Hydroelectric Project Docket for Filing: P-2082-027 (Klamath). Submitted to FERC by the Karuk Tribe of California, Orleans, CA. 60 p.
- Karuk Tribe of California, The Effects of Altered Diet on the Health of the Karuk People , 2005. Filed November 2005 with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Behalf of the Karuk Tribe in the Klamath River Project re-licensing process.
- Reed, Ron and Kari Marie Norgaard. Salmon Feeds Our People book chapter in Indigenous People and Biodiversity Conservation: Stories from the Field. Conservation International: Arlington, VA, forthcoming
- Quartz Valley Indian Reservation, Effects of Environmental Injustice on the Quartz Valley Indian Community, 2008. Prepared by John Bowman.
- US EPA, Determination to Add Microcystin Toxins Listing for Klamath River Hydrologic Unit, Middle HA Hydrologic Area, Oregon to Iron Gate, 3/13/2008
- Yurok Tribe Environmental Program. 2009. Final 2008 Klamath River Blue-Green Algae Summary Report. By Ken Fetcho. Yurok Tribe Environmental Program, Klamath, California. 26 p