Hope to an End of Pointing Fingers Across the Klamath Basin

New research may finally determine exactly what is causing water quality issues in the region

By Heidi Happonen


ater rights have long been an issue in the Klamath Basin. Agricultural interests need water for irrigation, while some tribal and commercial fishing interests need water levels in the Upper Klamath Lake and Klamath River to support healthy fish populations and provide spawning ground for fish such as salmon; as well as short-nose and lost river suckers.

Historically, forced water shutoffs designed to protect declining populations of threatened fish have resulted in extensive crop damage. There have also been massive fish die-offs both when irrigation needs were met and in years where they haven’t.

As challenges to water access have intensified, the quality of the limited available water has become an increasingly critical issue.

In other words, it’s not just about how much water is available. It’s about whether that water is actually creating more damage because of high levels of phosphorous and other toxins and pollutants.

The livelihoods of communities in the Klamath Basin are directly linked to the Upper Klamath Lake and Klamath River. Stretching from southern Oregon into northern California, the region supports family farms and ranches, and is home to one of the largest commercial salmon fisheries in the country. It is also home to the Karuk, Klamath, Hoopa, and Yurok tribes, all of whom have traditionally fished the area.

In fact, it is such a meaningful area that the U.S. Department of the Interior has designated the Klamath Basin as a “Treasured Landscape.” Past senior advisor for water resources to the Department of the Interior, Alan Mikkelson has also indicated the complexity of issues facing the Klamath watershed is the most complex in the nation.

Because of the importance of the Klamath Basin for so many interests, inevitable conflict has emerged over time.  As access to water and concern over water quality intensifies, that conflict has become increasingly litigated and challenging to navigate.

But Dr. Gerrad Jones, an assistant professor in the department of Biological & Ecological Engineering at OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences is attempting to shed some light on the real causes for water quality issues in the region.  By bringing some scientific clarity to the debate, the goal is to ultimately define lasting solutions that will benefit all.

A History of Water Quality Issues in the Basin

There is a long history of phosphorous in the area, dating to volcanic activity as far back as 7,700 years ago when the collapse of Mount Mazama during its eruption created the region’s iconic Crater Lake.

But, Jones explains, the recent history of water quality problems is getting worse.

Adding to the ancient phosphorous from volcanic activity is a century-plus of logging and forest practices, agricultural production with subsequent uses of crop protection chemicals combined with a growing population that impacts wastewater. In addition, there is the emerging problem of harmful algae blooms that produce toxins that not only are lethal to wildlife but also make people sick. Further, they are extremely difficult to remove from the water.

With all of these variables impacting the quality of an increasingly scarce resource that so many rely upon, the challenge of pinpointing the most significant sources of culprits behind degraded water quality has become daunting.

“When we think of water quality, we often think of individual compounds like a pesticide or hormone or antibiotic,” Jones said. “But there are hundreds of thousands of chemicals in the environment. Some chemicals are natural, like leaves that fall into the stream and naturally decompose, and some chemicals enter the environment from human activities, such as wastewater treatment plant discharge or runoff from developed surfaces. The problem with phosphorus is that it has a variety of sources, and pinpointing the specific sources contributing to low water quality has always proven problematic.”

Jones’ research aims to change that.

Pointing at Science, Not Each Other

Jones has conducted numerous research projects along different streams of water in the Corvallis area and recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to conduct similar research in the Klamath Basin.

The project aims to use machine learning tools to develop chemical fingerprints that are diagnostic of the different phosphorus sources within the Upper Klamath Basin. Out of the thousands of chemicals in the environment, Jones hopes to isolate the 10-100 that are most predictive of the presence or absence of a particular source. Once these fingerprints are developed, it will be possible to look for these signatures in water samples collected in the region. If a particular signature is disproportionately detected, it could be an indication that this source is having a larger impact on water quality in the system.

Ultimately, the goal is to implement targeted management strategies that have the greatest improvements on water quality while also protecting the current varied uses throughout the Basin. Jones hopes this approach will allow the stakeholders to work together to find solutions to the most pressing problems in the region.

No small task, but Jones has successfully been able to do this on a smaller scale collecting water samples from different sources around Corvallis, including: Wastewater treatment, grass seed fields, animal manure samples, runoff from neighborhoods, and parking lots. In total, he found 8,500 chemicals across all these samples. Using only the top 10 chemicals that were predictive of each source, he was able to detect locations within local watersheds where these sources were impacting water quality. Instead of broadly applying management strategies across an entire basin, Jones hopes to develop an approach that allows people to implement management strategies at the locations where they are needed.

Applying a similar methodology to the Klamath Basin, over the next four years the research should be able to identify the most significant sources that are impacting water quality. Using science, instead of finger pointing, the hope is that the energy currently being spent on arguing can be turned toward actionable solutions.

“I’m particularly excited about this project because we are entering into it with a truly collaborative approach,” Jones added.

Jones is a member of the Quechan (Kwatsáan) tribe and including local tribes in this project was important to him. At the same time, Brian Charlton, the director of the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center and co-investigator of the project engaged the local agricultural community in the effort.

Being able to start this project as a kind of collaboration speaks to the tone Jones hopes to set for the process. One big outcome the project aims to achieve is the opportunity to overcome past arguments so that diverse stakeholders can align around the common goal to improve both water quantity and quality in the region.

“We’re just getting started,” Jones added. “And while the science is important, we have to conduct the research against a backdrop of conflict that has been a part of this issue for years. Having everyone engaged and at the table from the beginning is a big part of what success will look like.”

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