When Water Is Scarce, Fish or Farms?
The Yurok Tribe fights to save the Klamath River in California for fish, with one of its own leading the charge through the courts.
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This article was originally published in High Country News, a magazine about the American West’s environment and communities. Read more stories like this at hcn.org.
On a warm September Saturday in 2002, Amy Cordalis stood in a Yurok Tribal Fisheries Department boat on the Klamath River, in response to reports from fishermen that something was amiss on the river. On this stretch of the Yurok Reservation, the river was wide and deep, having wound its way from its headwaters at the Upper Klamath Lake, through arid south-central Oregon to the California coast. Cordalis, then 22, was a summer fish technician intern, whose job was to record the tribe’s daily catch. A college student in Oregon, she’d found a way to spend time with her family and be on the river she’d grown up with—its forested banks and family fishing hole drawing her back year after year.
But that morning, something was wrong. Cordalis watched as adult salmon, one after the other, jumped out of the water, mouths gaping, before plunging back into the river. Her father, Bill Bowers, who was gill netting farther downriver, looked up to see a raft of salmon corpses floating around the bend. The carcasses piled up on the banks and floated in eddies, as seagulls swept inland to pick at the remains.
Remnants of the fish kill lingered for weeks, as Cordalis and fishermen up and down the river looked on in shock. By the end of it, California and the Hoopa Valley, Karuk and Yurok Tribes made a conservative estimate of the toll—34,000 dead salmon along the Klamath—though officials said the sheer volume made a true count difficult. It was the largest fish kill in both Yurok and US history, and its cause was no mystery. Earlier that year, the federal government had capitulated to public pressure from farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin and diverted water from the river to irrigate fields. The resulting low flows created a marine environment where fatal diseases could fester.
The Klamath water crisis and ensuing fish kill marked a pivotal moment for the Yurok Tribe. It shaped a generation of people, many of whom feel a fierce responsibility for a river that not only carries fish and water, but centuries of stories and struggle as well. As Amy Cordalis watched the salmon die, she told herself she would find a way to prevent similar tragedies. Today, she is the Yurok Tribe’s general counsel—meaning that, for the first time, the tribe has one of its own to lead its battles in court.
Since the fish kill, legal fights over the Klamath have rarely abated. As time goes on, though, the stakes increase, as salmon populations steadily drop, stream flows dwindle, and disease blights the water. This year, snowpack was a paltry 46 percent of normal in the Klamath Basin by March, and Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, Democrat, declared another drought in Klamath County. “Tensions are rising, people are looking for any source of water they can possibly use to get their crops wet,” Scott White, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, told me. “It is an operational nightmare.”
While the Yurok Tribe, the largest in California, has secured a number of legal wins for water and salmon, Cordalis told me recently that two main issues on the Klamath remain the same: an over-allocated river and dams that diminish water quality. What is different, though, is how the tribe is representing itself in court. As a lead attorney and a tribal member, Cordalis hopes to change those two fundamental problems by creating a legal framework that prioritizes fish as much as it does agriculture. “We are back to the time of the tribes on the river again,” Cordalis said. “We are reclaiming that governance now.”
One of Cordalis’s most important cases, Yurok Tribe et al. v. US Bureau of Reclamation et al., is currently in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes, joined by commercial fishermen, are suing the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation over the agency’s water plan, which they allege is not adequately preventing the fish diseases that result from low flows. They argue that the salmon, specifically endangered coho, need more water to consistently flush out disease-causing parasites. Water districts and irrigators, namely the Klamath Water Users Association, have sided with the Bureau, disputing the need for increased river flows and claiming they can’t give up any more water. This year, diversions away from irrigation have delayed farming, and White said he worries that some Klamath Basin farmers will go under.
As part of that case, in April, a district court judge ruled that endangered salmon on the Klamath are entitled to prioritized protection under the law. So when infection rates for salmon tipped over the legal limit later that month, water was again diverted from irrigators. The rest of the case has yet to be heard, but if Cordalis and her team secure a win, it will be an incremental step toward restoring Klamath salmon, and by extension the Yurok Tribe. The case and resulting water flows, she said, is “one of the most important conservation measures protecting Klamath River salmon from complete extinction.”
If Cordalis succeeds in winning this case and others, she will owe much of it to the family members who fought before her. Cordalis’s grandmother, Lavina Bowers, née Mattz, the family matriarch, has lived through the acquisition of Yurok lands and water by non-Natives, confrontations with armed federal agents, and the gradual renewal of Yurok political will and culture. I met Bowers at the Requa Inn, a 104-year-old hotel owned by Cordalis’s aunt (the first Yurok owners in nearly 100 years), which overlooks the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation. It was a blue-skied January morning, and the light shimmered on the water’s surface through the inn windows while Cordalis and her 2-year-old son, Keane, played nearby. Bowers wore a denim jacket and silk neckerchief, and as she described growing up in the 1930s, her traditional shell earrings swung gently back and forth.
As a child, Bowers lived upriver on a family farm, where she and her brother, Raymond, picked salmonberries in summer and rode a boat to school in the fall. It was a time of intense racism, socially accepted and legally codified in state and federal policy. At that time, the Yurok, a tribe long established along the rugged coast and Klamath River, had no overarching government and little say in what happened to its lands or people. Many of Bowers’s peers were sent to boarding schools by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a disruption that fractured her generation. Some returned, trying to earn a living in the fishing canneries in Klamath Glen on the reservation, or with the lumber companies, whose wealth was held primarily in non-Native hands. “Indian people have never really had justice,” Bowers told me. “A lot of us didn’t know how to stand up and talk for ourselves. I was an Indian kid that was treated like an Indian.”
The Yurok signed a treaty with the United States in 1851, but white settlers, hungry for gold in the newfound state of California, pressured Congress not to ratify it. A reservation was established in 1855, but as early as 1874, settlers argued that it had been abandoned, and that they had a right to homestead. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, essentially divvying up the reservation into small parcels for each Yurok, with any “surplus” lands going to non-Native homesteaders. Much of the allotted land thus passed out of Yurok hands. “Each time that I make a trip to the territory,” a BIA superintendent wrote in 1918, “I have it more forcibly impressed upon my mind that somehow the Indians did not get a fair portion of the land.”
Still, they had the river. In the early 1940s, despite a state ban on traditional salmon gill netting, Lavina and Raymond would sneak down to the Klamath at night to fish. Under the light of the moon, they would set their long nets across the breezy river, lie on a sand bar and wait for the fish. When game wardens came by to pull up the nets, the children would hide under a blanket. “I used to lay there under the blanket thinking they’d hear my heart beat,” Lavina said. “I’d try not to breathe.”
Raymond Mattz was 12 years old when he first got in trouble with a warden for gill netting. As an adult, in September 1969, he was fishing the fall run of chinook salmon at the family’s fishing hole, called Brooks Riffle—named for his great-great-great grandfather. When a state game warden caught Mattz and a group of friends with five gill nets, Mattz claimed all five nets were his and was arrested. He then sued the state of California to return the nets, but the state refused to return them, claiming that Mattz could not legally gill net in the state of California. The state argued that the Yurok Reservation had lost so much of its land to non-Native homesteaders and companies that it no longer met the legal definition of Indian Country. At its core, Mattz v. Arnett was a challenge to tribal sovereignty, the ability of tribes to govern themselves. The case went to the US Supreme Court, and the state lost. The court affirmed, in 1973, the Yurok Tribe’s treaty rights to fish by traditional means, including gill netting, and declared that the Yurok Reservation was indeed a part of Indian Country, a legal term that refers to lands held by tribes. Mattz’s stand on Brooks Riffle is not only part of Cordalis’s family lore but is also recorded in federal Indian law.
The Mattz case became part of a broader conflict in the Northwest called the Fish Wars. Triggered in part by the political momentum of the civil rights era, the Fish Wars included civil disobedience, such as “fish-ins,” in which Indigenous fishermen would flagrantly practice their treaty-held fishing rights, only to be arrested. The movement was also galvanized by the landmark Boldt Decision of 1974, which reaffirmed the rights of tribes to co-manage their fisheries and to harvest according to various signed treaties.
“The fact that we won that right in the Supreme Court, you’d like to think that they decided the way that things should be,” Bowers said.
Still, after the case was concluded in 1973, California found other means to invalidate the tribe’s fishing rights. A Supreme Court decision in 1977 gave states the power over tribes to regulate tribal fishing for conservation purposes. In 1978, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife closed down Indian fishing on the Klamath River, ostensibly for conservation reasons. Lavina’s son (and Amy’s father), Bill Bowers, remembers that period well. Signs and bumper stickers put up by disgruntled non-Native fishermen appeared on and near the reservation: “Can an Indian, Save a Fish.” Federal agents in riot gear enforced the moratorium by pulling up nets and ramming boats, and, the Yurok allege, by using physical violence and intimidation. “The hostility that was there was intense,” Bill told me. They began fishing at night again, leaving their flashlights in the truck.
It was into this moment of unrest that Cordalis was born, in March 1980.
Cordalis was the first of five siblings. From the time she was 5, Cordalis and her dad, a Yurok citizen and parole and probation officer, would drive from their family’s home in Oregon to Requa, on the reservation, when the salmon began their spring run from the Pacific up the Klamath, and again in the fall when the fish returned to the ocean. The pair would hang out at the seasonal fishing camps along the river and at their family fishing hole at Brooks Riffle, where, Cordalis says, “it all began.”
They would watch the salmon move up the river, scales glinting in the sun, and they would talk about the Yurok’s history. The Yurok people have fished and eaten the same runs of Klamath salmon for so many generations, Bill told her, that their DNA is intertwined. He told Amy fishing stories and family history as they drove home, bouncing down the road, the truck bed full of chinook salmon. Bill would talk politics with his fishing buddies, as Amy listened from the back seat of the cab of her dad’s truck. “She was my cruising buddy,” Bill told me.
Bill was forthright about the hardships the Yurok were up against—the drug and alcohol abuse and poverty that existed alongside pervasive racism, and social and environmental injustices. “You can change things,” he would tell her, “but you have to do that within the prevalent system. The most effective way is working with that system.”
In 2004, two years after the fish kill, a 24-year-old Cordalis began classes at the Pre-Law Summer Institute through the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico, an intensive program for Indigenous law students that replicates the first eight weeks of law school. Helen Padilla, director of the center and a tribal member of Isleta Pueblo, told me the program is designed to “open the door for the opportunity for Indian people to be able to have a voice” in the legal issues that affect them. Many of the students who go through the program do so for the same reasons as Cordalis, Padilla said: to give back to their tribe and improve their communities. “An Indian attorney has a much more vested interest in advocating for their Indian clients, and a better understanding of why a tribe might want to litigate or negotiate,” Padilla said.
There, Cordalis began to learn the full scope of tribal sovereignty, the power of treaties, and the authority that tribes have in government-to-government relationships with the United States. Because tribes remain the sovereign nations they were before colonizers arrived, they have a unique relationship with the United States. Cordalis had known few lawyers before, and even fewer who were Indigenous. That experience, coupled with mentorship from the Indian law firm Berkey Williams, which often represented the Yurok, helped her understand how much could be done within a legal framework, inside the system. “It was the first time that I’d encountered these issues my family has been dealing with for hundreds of years, in an academic way,” Cordalis said. It revealed how much agency the law could provide, and how legal decisions in one part of Indian Country could affect all tribes. “Up until that point, we were the clients,” she told me. “We were the victims, frankly.”
She also learned the limits of the law. A thesis she co-authored in law school analyzed a Supreme Court case that permitted the logging of Yurok ancestral lands, even though they had deep spiritual importance to the tribe. The justices decided that because the Forest Service owned the lands, the Yurok had no legal right to their management. Historically, she wrote, the United States has attempted to sever tribes like the Yurok from their lands, especially once legal title is forcibly transferred, regardless of a tribe’s past relationship to the land. The justices, she argued, ignored history. “The tribal narratives underlying (the case) suggest the opposite is true—that tribal attachment to place persists before, during, and after legal conquest.”
Cordalis graduated from Sturm College of Law, at the University of Denver, in 2007, and went to work as an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) in nearby Boulder, Colorado. There, she learned the complexities of water law and how it intersects with Indian law. NARF was established in Boulder in 1971, with an all-Indigenous board. John Echohawk, NARF’s executive director since 1977, was in the first class of students to graduate from the pre-law institute that Cordalis attended. “For so long, the only choices were non-Indian attorneys,” said Rodina Cave Parnall, a Quechua Peruvian Indian, director of the institute. Since the institute’s inception in 1967, when there were just a handful of Indigenous lawyers, some 1,200 students have graduated, including former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation. Native American lawyers and leaders have steadily established themselves across Indian Country and beyond, as a new, younger generation is filling the ranks.
As Cordalis began practicing law, the issues on the Klamath continued to evolve. In 2006, the license to operate the Klamath Hydroelectric Project expired. The project’s eight aging dams cut off miles of habitat for salmon, blocking their ability to run up the river, and that year, due to the low salmon numbers, commercial fishing was closed along more than 644 kilometers of coastline. The hydropower operator, PacifiCorp, faced the possibility of environmental lawsuits if it did not retrofit the dams to help salmon, but the cost of doing so outweighed their profitability. So, in 2009, PacifiCorp began working with a coalition of politicians, conservation groups, and tribal nations. The working group, which called itself the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, reached an agreement to remove four of the eight dams on the Klamath, pending federal approval, beginning in 2020—the largest dam removal project in the United States.
In litigation, Klamath Basin irrigators remain agnostic about the dam removal, because its effect on their interests is unclear. Some proponents say removing the dams could alleviate legal pressure on agriculture, because without dams, a more natural water cycle could help flush out fish diseases—and decrease lawsuits. Meanwhile, the farmers and ranchers on the Upper Klamath continued to struggle. During the drought of 2010, the Klamath Basin received US $10-million from Congress. Two years later brought another drought, as did the following year, and the year after that (and the next year, and the next).
In 2013, severe drought meant that farmers’ water was cut off during critical parts of the growing season. Amid rising discontent, Oregon State watermasters—a state position that helps track water rights—had to personally visit farms and shut off their irrigation water. “People are hurt, they are angry, and I think there’s grieving,” Roger Nicholson, a cattle rancher in the Wood River Valley near Fort Klamath, told High Country News at the time. “To lose the productive ability of our land is almost like the loss of a family member. It’s deep down.”
The emotional events of that year drove one watermaster, Scott White, to become the new director of the Klamath Water Users Association in 2016. “At the end of the day, farmers are the backbone of America,” White told me. “To be able to grow food and feed America: it’s hard to do that without water.”
The Klamath Basin’s non-Native agricultural ties to the land are deeply entrenched. In 1902, Oregon and California both ceded land to the federal government, which then opened it to homesteading with the promise of water rights for farmers. Veterans of both world wars were given preference, as wetlands were drained and dams were raised on the Klamath. The Bureau of Reclamation’s mission for the Klamath Project was to “reclaim the sunbaked prairies and worthless swamps.”
Ever since, these communities of farmers and ranchers have hung on like stalwart junipers, enduring economic hardship and drought, with the support of the federal government. But that’s been changing slowly, particularly since endangered and threatened species have gained priority under the law, and since tribes began exercising their senior water rights. (Tribal water rights, which can date back to original treaties, often provide the oldest rights on a river.) That long history means that farming out here is more than an income; it’s a culture. And that produces a binding knot of paradoxes between river users. “When I do have those conversations with those folks, whether it’s the Klamath Tribes or the Yurok Tribe, and they talk about their issues and concerns, I mean, it sounds like I’m talking to my guys,” White, the most frequent legal opponent of the downstream tribes, told me. “It’s just different perspectives that are out there, but they are identical issues.”
In 2014, the Yurok Tribe offered Cordalis a position on its legal team. It had always been her intention to return to Requa, so Cordalis and her husband, Daniel Cordalis, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and an attorney, moved back with their 2-year-old son, Brooks—named for the family riffle on the Klamath. But they found it difficult going; they couldn’t find a house, or day care, or a good grocery store. Food insecurity is prevalent across Del Norte and Humboldt counties, and the closest store to Klamath Glen is about 30 minutes away. After a few months, Daniel was offered a position as an attorney with the environmental law group Earthjustice, in Boulder, so they returned to Colorado.
Later that year, the Yurok Fisheries Department recorded a sweeping epidemic on the Klamath River: 81 percent of its juvenile salmon were infected with Ceratanova shasta, a deadly parasite that thrives when water flows are low. As Cordalis resettled in Colorado, C. shasta infection rates rose, hitting 91 percent the following year, an outbreak that would damage the fish population for years to come. In August 2015, Cordalis had her second son, Keane, named after the Yurok word for fisherman. A year later, when the Yurok Tribe asked her to be the tribe’s general counsel, she agreed. She moved her family to McKinleyville, an oceanside town just south of the Yurok Reservation, and got to work.
Cordalis, who is now 38, is only the second tribal attorney in the tribe’s history. The first, John Corbett, started in the 1990s with few resources to work with. “When he first started, they gave him a milk crate, a pad, and a pencil,” Cordalis told me. By contrast, Cordalis now has a staff of five that prioritizes water issues, dam removal, and reacquiring Yurok land for Yurok ownership. While her team represents a broader trend in Indian Country, Native Americans still make up just .2 percent of lawyers nationwide. Still, an Indigenous-led team can change the way law is practiced.
Chief Justice of the Yurok Tribe Abby Abinanti, herself a tribal member, was the first Native woman to pass the bar in California, in 1974. Cordalis’s role as both a general counsel and a Yurok citizen is an important development, Abinanti told me. “A lot of what you do as a lawyer is communicate with people who don’t know the story,” Abinanti said. “And the best storytellers are the ones who are a part of that story.” Reclaiming the legal narrative allows the tribe to litigate in the Yurok way. While law is often about individual rights, that’s not all the tribe focuses on. “It isn’t, ‘I have the right to do this to you,’ it’s, ‘I have a responsibility to do this for the community,’ and that is a very different approach to the world,” Abinanti said.
“Having a Yurok person in this role can have an impact,” Cordalis said, “because there’s a lot of ways to interpret the law. It’s going to make a difference, because we’ll exercise that sovereignty like Yuroks, not a county or state government.”
Cordalis told me there are many avenues to effect change, be it through science, activism, or litigation. Her legal approach, she said, is to identify common ground where possible. With the irrigators, it’s the Klamath. “That creates the tension, but it also means we both rely on the Klamath River for our livelihood,” she said. “And I think that connection to place and a resource creates a sense of respect and duty to protect.” Cordalis said she feels less personal resentment toward the upstream irrigators and the feds than some of her elders and peers do. After all, it was her father, uncle, and aunts, not her, who endured armed standoffs on the Klamath. Even so, the family stories drive her, she said. They carry a weight that brings momentum to her work.
“Lawyers aren’t born, they’re made,” Abinanti said. “It’s a lot of hard work, and she’s going to do the work. I do believe she is the future.”
Within her first six months on the job, Cordalis was involved with two major water cases that have implications for salmon survival and the Klamath’s health. One of them is the case against the feds currently in the 9th Circuit. The other was a battle over water allocation on the Trinity River, a major tributary to the Klamath, and whether water should go to salmon, or be diverted to California agriculture. In 2017, the 9th Circuit ruled that the amount of evidence demonstrating the salmon’s need was “staggering,” and that the restoration of the fisheries on the river was “unlawfully long overdue.” The court ordered the flushing flows to rehabilitate the Trinity, which had lost 80 percent of its salmon habitat due to the irrigation project on the river, to continue.
Both cases represent progress, but an even bigger task may yet lie ahead. While piecemeal litigation addresses problems one by one, no successful, large-scale agreement to deal with water allocation on the Klamath exists. “It’s a living, organic basin, and it will be there forever, and people need to have long-term solutions that they control, rather than courts,” said Paul Simmons, who represents the Klamath Water Users Association and was involved with negotiating the last agreement. Cordalis agrees. While lawsuits can be a useful tool, she said, “nobody really wins through litigation.” Water is not the only answer to restoring the fishery, and a comprehensive review of river management is needed to support both sustainable agriculture and the return of a pre-dammed river, she said.
The last attempted negotiation, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, died after Congress failed to pass the necessary legislation to support it. That agreement took years to formulate and was propelled by a friendship between the former executive director for the Yurok Tribe, Troy Fletcher, and the former director of the Klamath Water Users Association, Greg Addington, who used to golf together. “The real beauty of the past agreement was the relationships that were built,” said White, the current director. “The tragedy is that I think that we’re back in that era of litigation.” He’s still looking for his “golfing partner,” he said. In the meantime, the severity of this year’s drought has him worried. “Yes, absolutely we want to get to a long-term solution of some sort, where we don’t have to face these issues year in and year out. But on the other hand, if we don’t survive this year, we’re not going to be at a table to talk about that.”
The irrigators and river tribes have a long road to rebuild, starting from the rubble of three previously failed agreements. Under the Trump administration, Alan Mikkelsen, a senior advisor to the secretary of Interior, has begun contacting stakeholders about the potential of a new agreement, because at this point, it’s obvious that no one who depends on the river is doing well—not the farmers, not the fishermen, and certainly not the salmon.
Last August, the Yurok Tribe held its annual Salmon Festival, a public celebration of the first return of native chinook to the Klamath each fall. The 2017 festival was overshadowed by painfully low salmon runs, so much so that festivalgoers ate salmon from Alaska instead. (The year before, they’d had hamburgers and hot dogs.) Because of the long life cycle of chinook, the juvenile salmon populations plagued by C. shasta in 2014 and 2015 were returning as adults, with deeply thinned ranks. The tribe canceled commercial fishing for the second year in a row, and, for the first time, it canceled subsistence fishing, a particularly personal blow to families on the Klamath. As the festival got underway, the nearby docks were unusually quiet—devoid of boats, burger shacks, and sun-beaten fishermen. A parade went on under skies smudged with smoke from southern Oregon wildfires.
“It’s saddening and sickening to see what’s happening to our salmon runs in the Klamath River,” Chairman Thomas O’Rourke told me in his office, a few days after the parade. “The impacts are major; it’s a way of life. In the modern world, people take things for granted and say, ‘You can eat other things.’ Here, our people depend on our resources to live.”
Two months later, Oregon’s irrigators appealed the lower court’s decision to allow increased flows for the salmon—the next step in a potentially long path to the US Supreme Court.
In January, I drove with Cordalis to the mouth of the Klamath, where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean. We were supposed to take a boat upriver, to see Brooks Riffle, but the boat had broken down, so we walked the quiet docks instead, the estuary water in the afternoon light glinting like fish scales. Little Keane ran ahead, as Cordalis told me about the sense of loss she feels at not having seen the Klamath at its wildest and healthiest. She’s never seen the salmon runs she heard about in her dad’s stories. “Grandma and Great-Uncle Ray talk about huge fish runs; I’ve never seen that,” Cordalis said.
The Yurok’s ancestral lands were once called the Redwood Empire, a vast swath of land that stretched inland through old growth and rocky cliffs, with the Klamath running through it like an artery, the coho salmon red and thick as blood. As Yurok lands were taken, the Klamath suffered, and today, even if the four dams come down, even if the fish got all the water in the Klamath, the salmon would still have to contend with an unhealthy ocean.
We returned to the car with Keane in tow, and, as the sun set, began the drive home. “You talk about the American Dream,” Cordalis said, the coastal mists and forest shadows darkening in the twilight. “My family has experienced the exact opposite, through assimilation and genocide—just taking, taking, taking.”
Despite all that, the Yurok have always had the Klamath and its salmon. Today, that sense of place sustains the tribe’s persistence and underpins Cordalis’s work. A generation ago, no one would have thought it possible that the four dams could come down. Now, it seems it’s just a matter of time. “We see who we are, and our core values don’t change,” Cordalis said. “And the funny thing is that we’ve been fighting that same thing since white people came here, so we’re kind of good at it by now.”