A River Runs Through Us
By MALCOLM TERENCE, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer
The Karuk Tribe and two other Orleans-based groups invited their neighbors last week for an update on the condition of the Klamath River and also to share a supper of venison stew. It was preaching to the faithful and to newcomers alike. More than 100 people attended.
The speakers touched on toxic algae pollution, the health and cultural consequences of the dams, the importance of advocacy and the steps to a regional self-sufficiency that they call food sovereignty. The event was titled “A River Runs Through Us” and the dinner was provided free, a rarity in a community where fundraisers are common place.
Crystal Bowman is the water resources coordinator for the Karuk Tribe and she began by describing the detection and hazards of toxic blue-green algae in the Klamath River.
The tribe was the leader in publicizing its presence and has maintained a rigorous testing program from the hydro-electric dam reservoirs above I-5 and down to the mouth of the river in Klamath. She reported that the stretch of river from above Irongate Dam to Orleans tested positive for the organisms and their toxins.
The cyanobacteria and the toxins they produce have not appeared in any Klamath tributaries with the exception of one isolated finding in the reservoir of Dwinell Dam on the Shasta River.
Bowman explained that the toxin can affect drinking water, fish and especially mussels which operate as filters in polluted water. Exposure can cause rashes, headaches, liver damage and other symptoms in humans, pets and wildlife.
Whenever the levels of algae and their toxins exceed safety standards, alerts are posted along the river.
Leaf Hillman, the tribe’s natural resources said the degradation of Klamath water quality endangers the health of the indigenous communities in the basin. These declines make the local residents “the miners’ canaries” for the surrounding populations, a reference to the canaries that miners used to carry into the coal mines to warn them when toxic gasses were reaching dangerous levels. If the canaries sickened or died, the miners would evacuate.
Hillman cited academic studies that show declines in the health of tribal members which correlated with the reduction of fish in local Native diets. He listed the diseases that had grown more prevalent including diabetes, which is four times more prevalent among Karuk people than the general population.
Initial reports of the outbreak came in the 1970s. Hillman linked the diabetes epidemic to the crash of fish populations that began in the 1960s.
“These are not coincidences,” he said.
Konrad Fisher is executive director of Klamath Riverkeeper, one of more than 200 water protection groups around the world in the Waterkeeper Alliance. He told the Orleans audience that activism around the Klamath gained momentum after the 2002 fish kill.
He said the target for river advocacy shouldn’t be groups like the dam-hugging Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, it should be the agencies and office holders “who have the power to give us what we want.”
In a short history of river advocacy he listed the highly publicized trip of tribal representatives to confront owners of the dams in Scotland and the discovery of the toxic algae pollution by Karuk Tribe scientists.
He said this was followed by trips to the annual shareholders meetings of the next owner, Berkshire Hathaway and a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force reduction of the algae.
“There are really good laws on the books that don’t get enforced,” Fisher explained.
Last year Klamath Riverkeeper (KRK) settled a lawsuit with the Montague Irrigation District to increase flows in the Shasta River and added, “I hope it isn’t necessary to sue in the Scott River,” another Klamath tributary that is often dewatered by irrigators.
A fourth speaker was Mark Dupont who works with the Mid Klamath Watershed Council’s Foodshed program, a campaign that he explained is partnered with the Karuk Tribe and with KRK.
He said the Foodshed program offers an array of free classes, many taught by local experts starting in the spring with pruning, grafting, a seed exchange and bee keeping. There will also be trainings in water conservation and, in the fall and winter, classes for food preservation and baking bread and bagels.
There is also a program for revitalizing old fruit trees and a traveling apple press available on a check-out basis.
The dates of the classes are available on the Foodshed website along with a planting calendar, advice for pest abatement and soil improvement and much more.