with life-giving water in this dry upper basin is today mostly drained, diked, ditched, and dismembered. So diminished is the blue-green kingdom of wokas, it is difficult for Klamath people to sustain a reliable harvest. Yet wokas remain an integral part of Klamath culture, traditional diet, and collective memory.
What is the persistence of memory in the land? Does it hold recollection beyond the petroglyphs carved in soft volcanic tuff at the base of a cliff, not far from what used to be abundant wokas-gathering places? Incised at what used to be the edge of Tule Lake, there are what look like suns, geometric forms, people, animals. Thousands of figures, cut deeply in the rock—and today fenced behind chain link for protection from vandals. Is memory held in water, seeking wokas stems but now diverted to grow crops including sugar beets, potatoes, onions, and hay? Is memory held in the wokas that abide? Do they miss the hands of the gatherers, the slip of dugouts as lithe as the garter snakes through these lily pads?
The Bureau of Reclamation launched a relentless campaign to drain and replumb the marshes and lakes of the upper basin for farming beginning in 1906. The result was an 80% reduction of
what had been 350,000 shimmering acres that once drew possibly the greatest concentration of waterfowl in the world. Then came eight dams on the Klamath River, beginning in the early 1900s, blocking the passage of salmon, steelhead, and lamprey eel.
Yet life persists. Not far from the petroglyphs, a white-faced ibis stood in the mud of an irrigation ditch. It was an otherworldly vision, an outlandishly beautiful bird in purple, green, and bronze plumage, standing on long, pink legs. It held its elegant head erect, its curved bill poised to probe the wet mud. Blackbirds sang and swung in bullrushes. Clouds of moths caught the low summer evening light. Butterflies, large as the back of a hand, hovered and sipped at sweetness in flowers at the water’s edge, opening and closing wings of red velvet.
Returning here in their seasonal gyre, this remains a place for waterfowl of continental significance despite the water now being owned, allotted, and moved from engineered sump to sump. In the record drought of 2021, one lake was a dried, cracked expanse. Tiny shells of stranded freshwater mollusks, paper-thin and shattering, and a desiccated bird wing amid roadside trash testified to a lost
world. The drought had provided an opportunity to more cheaply perform routine maintenance on the lake, called Sump 1 A, draining it to combat bird-killing botulism and to mimic a natural cycle of wet and dry conditions long lost in so heavily altered a system.
How much violence can one landscape suffer? It was not far from these marshes that some 150 Modoc men, women, and children holed up during a five-month siege by the U.S. Army over the winter of 1872-3 in a natural lava bed fortress of caves and walls. It ultimately took an army of some 1,000 to defeat the Modoc. Their leaders were hung, and the survivors were forcibly removed to Oklahoma, where many died of tuberculosis. The rout by the Army, launched at the request of farmers and settlers who demanded removal of the Modoc, was the end for the unbounded wetlands and the laughter and work songs of subsistence wokas-gathering that was abundance itself.
Now, nearly 150 years later, drought, sickness, and strife stalk this land and water. In 2020, tens of thousands of birds died of botulism caused by low water levels in Tule Lake and the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. During the summer of 2021, pyrocumulonimbus clouds boiled and seethed
in the distance over the Bootleg fire, the third largest wildfire in Oregon’s history, as it burned timber dried by drought as if in a kiln. Toxic blue-green algae proliferated in dammed reservoirs. Some farmers watched their crops wither. The government that had lured their predecessors here with promises of abundance had provided no water at all for some farms.
But as decisions of the past bore bitter fruit, a new future also was taking hold here.
Beginning in 2023, four dams in all are set to come out of the Klamath River.
Built to generate power by PacifiCorp, today these dams—J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate—back up the Klamath into fetid, stinking reservoirs so foul that in summer, health officials post no-contact warnings for water made toxic by blue-green algae. This river, once the third-largest salmon producer on the West Coast, has become unsafe for humans to touch.
For PacifiCorp, Klamath dam removal is about economics. To bring these dams up to modern environmental standards, as required in a federal relicensing process, would be punishingly expensive for customers. Taking down the dams will save ratepayers money and open 400 miles of salmon habitat. It’s also a triumph for the Klamath, Karuk, and Yurok tribes. The Salmon People are leading the way to a new future here by looking to their past, reviving their teachings, and reconnecting to the river.