Lapping around the concrete block with green, well-watered, politically tone-deaf lawns where bureaucrats do nothing while salmon die, raising fears that we will witness another fish kill like the catastrophic one on the Klamath in 2002, I thought of one of my favorite jokes. (For me to appreciate a joke, it has to be short enough to remember and simple and stupid/smart enough in its humor to permeate my literalist membrane.)

What does the fish say when it hits the wall? Dam.

Earlier that day, I had recorded the heartfelt testimony of friend and fellow river advocate Dania Rose Colegrove at the State Water Resources Control Board. Flanked by three large jugs of opaque green toxic algae sludge scooped from the Klamath River the previous night, Dania pleaded with the members of the water board and their staff, appealing with great emotional strength to their conscience.

Dania speaks to the California state water board yesterday.

Dania speaks to the California state water board yesterday.

“This is our river. I’ve been here before with this water and nothing’s changed. Why? Can you answer that?” A laugh escapes her lips, then back to a sobering subject. “I’m trying to be as nice as I can, but it’s starting to piss me off. Look at the water. The fish are dying. They need water. And the Central Valley, everyone is taking our water. Southern California is sucking us dry.”

As Dania said, we’ve been here before with the gross green jugs and sad stories of dead fish, and here we were again. It feels like running into a wall, over and over. What else can you say but dam?

I shuffled between the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) entrance on the lawn in the back of the block where crowds chanted, waved signs and waited for six of our people to emerge from a meeting with the top bureaucrat in the building and the front lawn where more banners were staked, reading things like “Fish Can’t Swim in $,” and “Undam the Klamath, Free the Trinity.” Security forces circulated around the building, monitoring our movements, speaking into radios. Phone numbers were written on wrists, in case of jail time. Voices went hoarse over the megaphone yelling “Fish Need Water” and “Stop a Fish Kill! Preventative Flows Now!”

Sending a strong message outside the BOR yesterday.

Sending a strong message outside the BOR yesterday.

It felt surreal to be here in this city where decisions are made about our rivers half a day’s drive away, on the brink of a second major fish kill, watching as Westlands Water District in California’s Central Valley siphons off much more than half of the flow from one of the Klamath’s cleanest, coldest major tributaries. It felt frustrating. Like Georgiana Myers said to a reporter who aired it on the evening news, “We promised ourselves we would never let that happen again.”

The emotional charge of the action was palpable. These water and fish issues are personal.

Just because massive water diversions out of the basin seemed like a good idea in the past doesn’t make them a good idea now. It doesn’t mean we have to keep doing that now. We can walk away from a bad idea like sending our water south while our fish are dying. Those were the sentiments of Chook Chook Hillman, part of the delegation of tribal members who had met with Dave Murillo of the BOR. (You can call David Murillo at 916-978-5000 to ask him to cut off water deliveries from the Trinity to the Central Valley and use that water to prevent a fish kill.)

As we schooled up on both sides of the building, we looked at eachothers’ faces. They are familiar, but some of them we haven’t seen since the last protest. Such is life on the Klamath. On the ride from the Water Board to the BOR, I observed that we had three generations of Klamath Riverkeepers in the car, slamming into the institutional walls holding back water, hoping to create cracks.

Dam.

Strange how a crisis can bring us together.

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