Klamath River Basin Issues and Activities: An Overview

Publication Date: September 2005

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Environment



The Klamath River Basin, an area on the California-Oregon border, has become a focal point for local and national discussions on water management and water scarcity. Water and species management issues were brought to the forefront when severe drought in 2001 exacerbated competition for scarce water resources and generated conflict among several interests ­ farmers, Indian tribes, commercial and sport fishermen, other recreationists, federal wildlife refuge managers, environmental groups, and state, local, and tribal governments. The conflicts over water distribution and allocation are physically and legally complex, reflecting the varied and sometimes competing uses of limited water supplies in the Basin. For management purposes, the Basin is divided at Iron Gate Dam into the Upper and Lower Basins.

As is true in many regions in the West, the federal government plays a prominent role in the Klamath Basin's water management. This role stems from three primary activities: (1) the operation and management of the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Water Project and Central Valley Project (e.g., Trinity River dams); (2) management of federal lands in the Basin, including five national wildlife refuges, several national forests, and public lands; and (3) implementation of federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Clean Water Act (CWA), and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Conflict was sparked in April of 2001 when the Bureau of Reclamation, which has supplied water to farms in the Upper Basin for nearly 100 years, announced that "no water [would] be available" for farms normally receiving water from the Upper Klamath Lake to avoid jeopardizing the existence of three fish species listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. While some water was subsequently made available to some farmers from other sources (e.g., wells and other Bureau sources), many farmers faced serious hardships.

During Reclamation's operations in September of 2002, warm water temperatures and atypically low flows in the lower Klamath contributed to the death of at least 33,000 adult salmonids. This die-off damaged fish stocks and the tribes, commercial fishermen, and recreational anglers that catch Klamath fish.

There have been many studies, Biological Opinions, and operating plans over recent years, all of which have been controversial. The events of 2001 and 2002 prompted renewed efforts to resolve water conflicts in the Klamath Basin. Congress has responded to the controversy in a number of ways, including holding oversight hearings and appropriating funds for activities in the area. This report provides an overview of recent conflict in the Klamath Basin, with an emphasis on activities in the Upper Basin, and summarizes some of the activities taking place to improve water supply reliability and fish survival. This report will be updated as events warrant.