Melodie Meyer is associate general counsel for the Yurok Tribe in Northern California—one of the few California tribes whose members still reside on a portion of their ancestral lands. The Yurok reservation borders a 44-mile stretch of the Klamath River; we asked Ms. Meyer to tell us more about efforts to protect the watershed.
Tell us about the Yurok Tribe’s water management program on the Klamath River.
The Tribe’s water programs center around managing water quality—ensuring that the tributaries that drain into the Klamath are healthy and not polluted. The environmental department’s water division has staff dedicated to dealing with permitting for the water programs, as well as a water quality control plan and a water pollution control ordinance.
The reservation is very sloped and very rural, and quite a few activities can lead to poor water quality, especially illegal dumping. Very few people have access to waste disposal, and it can be difficult to access private roads and see what’s happening on the reservation. There are also illegal cannabis grows, which leads to pollution. That’s been a big strain on water in general, especially for the smaller tributaries. The environmental department tries to keep this in check through enforcement and permitting.
Part of protecting water quality for fish is also about protecting flows. The federal and state endangered species acts are the main legal mechanism the Tribe uses to ensure there are enough flows within the river to protect Coho and Chinook salmon. Fishing is so integral to tribal members’ quality of life and identity that it’s been a key focus of our work. The Tribe’s fishery department works closely with the legal team to monitor Bureau of Reclamation releases and its compliance with the biological opinion and incidental take permit that governs the project. Together they form a joint coordinated effort to make sure things are on track for water flows.
The Tribe is also working on a “rights of the Klamath River” ordinance and a water rights strategy. This is a tribal ordinance enumerating rights for the river and granting it legal personhood. Tribal water rights are based on the federal reserved water rights doctrine, the executive order that created the Yurok reservation, and judicial decisions that recognize the Tribe’s ancestral water and fishing rights in the Klamath River and its tributaries. There are a lot of different mechanisms available to tribes, but they’re not always as comprehensive as the Yurok Tribe would like them to be—especially the Endangered Species Act—because tribes don’t have a say in the regulatory process.
What kind of challenges is the Yurok Tribe facing in terms of implementation and enforcement? How can the tribe address some of these challenges?
I’ve come across some interesting challenges recently. There’s an immediate question around the extent of the Tribe’s jurisdiction, especially for non-tribal members or on non-tribal land. This is a big hurdle. We’re looking at how to expand the Tribe’s jurisdiction. It’s largely a political question—the current US Supreme Court goes back and forth on how much it will recognize a tribe’s sovereignty and sovereign rights. There are limits to how much up-river and off-reservation influence the Tribe can have. That’s a bad spot to be in when you’re trying to protect a downriver water resource.
Tribes will often dispute who has priority fishing rights—which can in turn affect water allocation. Oftentimes the state says it won’t touch this issue, even though it likely has the greatest capacity and resources to prevent over-fishing, so the Yurok Tribe isn’t always left with options for protection. It’s seen as a federal issue and a tribal issue. That’s good in some sense, because we’re pushing for tribes to have more autonomy, but how can we work with state and federal partners to make the best decisions?
What are the Yurok Tribe’s expectations and hopes for the river and the fishery following the removal of the dams?
It’s going to be really exciting once the dam removals are underway. The Tribe is really looking forward to seeing an ecological difference, improved water quality, and hopefully more water to increase salmon’s resilience to disease. This is a huge help to restore the Tribe’s historic fisheries.
Longer-term, the Tribe is looking forward to centering the economy around restoration and habitat protection. It’s a good way to get Tribal workforces involved. The Tribe is looking at how to conserve and enhance cultural resources and restore forests. That overlaps with current projects around habitat restoration but we’re also thinking about educational opportunities, different land-return strategies, and projects on unanticipated outcomes from the dam removal.
What gives you hope?
I take a lot of inspiration from the younger generations—people from the Yurok Tribe involved in different types of restoration efforts. There’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to looking for ways to return land to the Tribe and to provide for all Tribal members through fishing, traditional gathering, and food sovereignty. It’s exciting to see, even though there are challenges and uncertainty around how climate change will impact the region. The Tribe is on the right track, and it keeps my job interesting