First, you have to talk

Last week, I listened to a story that is nothing short of miraculous.

The tale was of the Klamath River Project and the restoration agreements signed last month by tribal, government, power company, conservationist and agricultural interests to restore salmon runs by removing five hydroelectric dams. The storytellers were Troy Fletcher of the Yurok Tribe, Steve Kandra of the irrigated farmers, and D.C. Jackson, dam historian in a plenary session at the Environmental History conference in Portland.

The Klamath agreement launches the largest river-restoration project in the history of the United States, but that’s not the miraculous part.

The miracle is that this agreement came after decades of bitter battles between the irrigated farmers and the tribes and conservationists. The story runs deep in the arid West and actually starts in our own backyard, with the Newlands Project’s Truckee Canal, the irrigation project that launched the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Klamath Project began shortly after Newlands, diverting water to irrigate farmlands in Oregon and California, and to provide cheap electricity. But the dams blocked the salmon runs, depriving Klamath, Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes of their historic food staple. The long-simmering controversy came to a head in 2001, when drought compelled the federal government to close off irrigation to the farmers, honoring the tribal fishing rights only recently affirmed by the Supreme Court. The irrigated farmers went ballistic, organizing a symbolic “bucket brigade” to massive media attention, and even trespassing on federal land to divert water into the irrigation ditches—a federal crime that went unprosecuted.

Drought continued into the following year, and the feds flip-flopped, when then-Interior Secretary Gayle Norton allowed water to flow to the irrigation project first. This action caused a massive salmon die-off in the lower river, a catastrophe the stocks have yet to recover from. This time the tribes protested by shipping 75 pounds of dead salmon FedEx to Norton’s office in Washington, D.C. That got her attention.

These stories are the guts of Western history—Owens Valley, Mono Lake, Truckee River, Colorado, Klamath. Even if you don’t know the details, you know the story arc. It all ends in a big mess, pseudo-compromises that leave everyone angry. Tea-Party Angry.

But last Thursday I listened to Fletcher and Kandra talk about how they overcame their historic enmity to build the bridges leading up to this agreement.

“One day I realized that something Indians and farmers both have in common—we both love to drink beer,” Fletcher said. “So, Steve and I sat down to drink some beers and figure out what else we have in common.”

Kandra laughed. “Don’t ever try to go point for point or beer for beer with Troy,” he said. “I always lose on that one.”

During the question and answer session, a number of people wanted to know what got them to the point where they could have that discussion. Was it the facilitators? Mediation?

“The Klamath has chewed up and spit out some of the best facilitators and mediators in the world,” said Fletcher. “No, it wasn’t them. I just realized I was tired. I was fighting and not getting anywhere, and I figured that if I felt that way, there had to be some people on the other side feeling that way, too.”

Listening to these men talk about their journey from bitter rivals to collaborators, I imagined what might happen to this country if more story arcs could bend this direction. It’s a long way from where we are now, but if it can happen on the Klamath, it can happen anywhere.