Reclaiming the Klamath

For the Yurok, the fight to protect the Klamath River and the Tribe’s way of life goes back centuries.

Ta-tes Boulby, a member of the Yurok Tribe, fishes at the mouth of the Klamath River in Northern California. July 7, 2018.
Ta-tes Boulby, a member of the Yurok Tribe, fishes at the mouth of the Klamath River in Northern California. July 7, 2018. (Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice)

Every Summer, massive algal outbreaks form in the Klamath River and float downstream, weighing down the nets of fishermen and turning them into obvious obstructions that salmon easily avoid.

When it dies, the algae releases deadly toxins into the water, making it unsafe for humans and animals.

The cause of the deadly algae is well known: large-scale agricultural runoff combining with unnaturally warm water. And recent decades have turned the Klamath River, once one of the highest salmon-producing rivers on the West Coast, into a breeding ground for the toxic gunk.

The source of the problem lies upstream, where a massive system of dams and irrigation canals called the Klamath Irrigation Project span the Klamath Basin from Southern Oregon into Northern California.

It enables farmers there to irrigate crops in a climate that otherwise couldn’t support the production.

More than 700 miles of canals, seven dams, and 28 pumping stations make up the Klamath Irrigation Project, which annually drains as much as half of the water from the Klamath River.

The lower the river gets, the harder it is for adult salmon fish to make their way upstream to spawn, and the warmer the water running in the river becomes.

The warm water, in turn, allows for proliferation of several deadly diseases that attack baby salmon — known in this stage of life as ‘smolt’ — as they attempt to migrate from their spawning grounds out to the Pacific Ocean.

Infection rates among the young salmon were especially high in 2014 and 2015, leading to abysmal returns when the baby salmon would have returned to the river as adults. The Yurok were forced to wholly cease commercial fishing in those years.

The worst-case scenario is that the water gets so low and so warm that diseases that are normally regulated by the natural cleansing flow of the river build up and explode, infecting and killing the salmon by the thousands in a “fish kill.”

That’s what happened in 2002.

At least 60,000 adult salmon were killed that year by a disease that infected the fishes’ gills as they made their way up the river to spawn. That year, observers said that you could smell the river, the stench of rotting fish carcasses lining its banks, for miles around.

From the Yurok

Dave Hillemeier


“In the past two decades, the Klamath River’s juvenile and adult salmon populations have experienced numerous disease-driven, die-offs, including the largest pre-spawn mortality event in American history.

“Excessive water diversions, nutrient loading, modified sediment budgets, and dams create the ideal ecological conditions for fish pathogens to populate the river at elevated rates.

“Indiscriminately killing thousands of chinook and threatened coho salmon, the disease organisms responsible for these recurring fish losses flourish in the river’s artificially warm, algae-filled and altered ecosystem.”

For the Yurok, the fight to protect the Klamath River and the Tribe’s way of life goes back centuries.
As the California Gold Rush brought droves of settlers to the region, unregulated mining and logging operations decimated the salmon spawning habitats and brought settlers into frequent conflict with the Tribe.

By 1855, three of every four Yurok Tribal members had been killed by disease or conflict with the settlers, and those who remained were confined to a reservation a fraction the size of their ancestral lands.

In creating the reservation, the federal government guaranteed the Yurok’s right to the salmon in the Klamath. But in practice, the Yurok have had to fight time and again to exercise their right.

The first canal of what would become the Klamath Irrigation Project was completed in 1906.

Recognizing that the project had left the river’s salmon bordering on extinction, the state outlawed all commercial fishing for salmon in the Klamath in the 1930s. The Yurok were included in the ban.

It took four decades of struggle and legal action for them to win back their right to fish the river.

Then the California Supreme Court once again banned the Tribe from fishing the river in 1978, sparking armed showdowns with federal and state authorities in a highly contentious episode known as the “Klamath Salmon Wars.”

From the Yurok

Joseph L. James


“Our Creator gave us the right to sustainably harvest salmon from the Klamath River. In return, we have a sacred duty to be a strong steward of the river and all of the life it supports.

“Since time immemorial, this reciprocal relationship has ensured the prosperity of uncountable generations of Yurok people.

“That is why we fought so hard in the Salmon Wars and will continue to fight to preserve our salmon runs for all future generations.”

Now, facing the devastation of the Klamath salmon at the hands of those that would drain the river for unsustainable agriculture, the Yurok Tribe have mobilized once again to defend their way of life.

Once again, the Yurok Tribe turned to the courts for restitution and joined forces with Earthjustice and commercial fishing families to protect the salmon. Hoopa Valley Tribe also joined the litigation.

In response to our litigation, on Feb. 8, 2017, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick found that the Bureau of Reclamation’s operation of the Klamath Irrigation Project is causing irreparable harm to the salmon and the Yurok Tribe and fishing families.

The court ordered federal agencies to immediately take steps to protect juvenile coho salmon after several years of deadly disease outbreaks in the Klamath River.

And on Apr. 30, 2018, Judge Orrick upheld that order in the face of requests from the Klamath Basin irrigators and the Bureau to deny flows for salmon.

The Klamath Basin tribes — Yurok, Hoopa Valley, and the Klamath Tribes — have senior, federally reserved water rights that predate the water rights of Klamath Irrigation Project irrigators, ruled the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on Nov. 14, 2019, in the decades-long Baley v. United States legal case.

“We will fight any move to weaken protections for juvenile salmon from deadly parasites and lay the groundwork for safeguards that will protect the fish that sustain the Tribe,” says Stephanie Tsosie, an Earthjustice attorney who is part of the legal team representing the Yurok.

“Earthjustice is resolved to fight for the survival of Klamath salmon and stand with the Yurok Tribe and as they defend their cultural heritage and economic well-being.”

In March 2020, Earthjustice helped secure a three-year plan from the Bureau of Reclamation for additional springtime water flows to support the Klamath River salmon population.

In May, those commitments were withheld without warning due to drought predictions. Earthjustice immediately challenged the water shutoff, citing the potential for catastrophic loss of salmon, but the court refused to weigh in further at the time.

We are continuing to work on behalf of the Yurok Tribe, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources to protect Klamath River salmon.

From the Yurok

Amy Cordalis


“The favorable U.S. District Court ruling required the Bureau of Reclamation to create and implement a strategy to prevent another prolific disease outbreak and the juvenile fish.

“The Yurok Tribe elected to engage in this legal action after the fish stocks plummeted to levels previously unseen, a preventable outcome stemming from improper river management.

“To protect the overall fish population, the Yurok Tribe severely restricted or completely curtailed all fishing for two consecutive seasons.”

After two years without any Klamath salmon to serve, the Yurok Tribe held its 56th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival in August of 2018.

Drawing thousands of visitors from surrounding native and non-native communities, the yearly event is an open invitation by the Tribe to all comers to celebrate the river’s fish.

Earthjustice’s Northwest Office was established in 1987. Our Seattle-based attorneys take on the region’s most critical environmental challenges, including protecting majestic old-growth forests, safeguarding Puget Sound’s orcas, saving our iconic wild salmon, and blocking massive coal export facilities and shipment of dangerous crude oil by rail. Learn more.

About this legal case: For two decades, Earthjustice attorneys have worked to save the Klamath River salmon, on behalf of the communities who depend on the salmon. Learn more.