This basin encompasses some 8,000 square miles and is located in South-Central Oregon and Northeastern California, with 5,600 square miles primarily in Klamath County, according to an analysis done by the U.S. Geological Survey. Because of chronic water shortages, the Klamath Basin has received federal emergency relief averaging $17 million a year, with a high of $60 million one year, since 2001. Proponents of the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, including Mike Gerel, water program director of Sustainable Northwest, argue that though it carries a hefty price tag ($550 million), it will offer a net savings to the federal government, help protect a total of $750 million in annual economic value already produced by farming ($600 million) and commercial fishing industries ($150 million), sustain or create thousands of jobs, and help revitalize the mostly rural communities that have been negatively affected by chronic water shortages.
Gentry’s father was part Klamath and part Modoc, two tribes that historically did not get along. (“You live on a reservation together, things happen,” Gentry laughs). A grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of three, Gentry earned a certificate of Christian ministry through Pacific Bible College’s extension program in Chiloquin, where he lives and where the Klamath Tribes are headquartered.
But if Gentry is deeply spiritual, he is also pragmatic. “I’m not afraid to communicate what I believe is best for our people,” he says, pointing to cell phones in each pocket, one for personal use and one for business. He considers himself a “servant leader” serving the Klamath and says he’s “learned to not take things personal.” Gentry explains water allocation is particularly urgent and charged this spring, as Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought in California in January, and Gov. John Kitzhaber declared drought emergencies in Klamath, Lake, Harney and Malheur counties in February, then declaring a drought in Crook County in April and in Jackson County in May. Last year, because of similar drought conditions, the Klamath exercised their water rights and shut off irrigation to Upper Klamath cattle ranches to protect tribal fisheries causing major difficulties and loss of revenue for ranchers. Federal marshals were called in.
Past a parched field of wild-growing sagebush and bitterbrush, the Sprague and Williamson rivers converge behind the Klamath Tribes’ administrative offices, tributaries to the Klamath Lake that are part of the agreement. Water rushes over the rocks, and willow saplings are beginning to bud. A trio of magpies “wick wick” in the blue sky above. Trash is tangled in the undergrowth: a crushed aluminum can, a discarded pack of cigarettes, a yellow plastic lid.
According to the Klamath Facilities Removal Final Environmental Impact Statement, implementation of KBRA and KHSA is projected to create $9.6 million in economic output for the Klamath Tribes. But the KBRA and KHSA have yet to get the political support needed to become law. Though the new agreement was signed by Gov. Kitzhaber in a ceremony on April 18, it still has to be approved by the federal legislature. “There’s a Klamath saying: ‘If all that we had to share with a visitor was a flea, we’d share that flea.’ That remains a core value,” Gentry says. “But we’ll also protect ourselves.” If the legislature does not approve the agreement, the Klamath Tribes plan to go to court.
“Our people watched Mount Mazama erupt. Archaeological evidence shows we’ve been in this area for 15,000 years. We have a spiritual responsibility to be stewards over this land,” Gentry says, “and we have a right to this water.”