Published: June 27, 2013

Every year, Colorado Law students in the Advanced Natural Resources Law Seminar focus their studies on a particular watershed of the United States, including a 9-day field trip over spring break. This year, Professor Charles Wilkinson led seminar students to the Klamath River Basin, a watershed located in southern Oregon and northern California with the largest scale dam removal effort in U.S. history and the heart of a potential "water war."

Within the basin, covering some of the most beautiful and remote land in America, are national forests, part of Crater Lake National Park, national monuments, and salmon. One of the main focus areas of study within this watershed was the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, known as the KBRA.

The KBRA is the result of years of negotiations between community members throughout the entire basin who sought to reach collaborative solutions and equitably apportion water rights among farmers, ranchers, salmon, American Indian tribes, conservation interests, businesses, and local residents. The Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), linked to the KBRA, is the most ambitious and largest scale dam removal ever attempted. Combined, the KBRA-KHSA would remove four dams on the Klamath River, implement programs to restore and sustain fish production, and apportion water amounts for agriculture and other uses.

The KBRA-KHSA agreements must be enacted by Congress, but so far Congress has not acted. This year, a drought year in the basin, is especially tense. Without the KBRA-KHSA, many farmers and ranchers will not receive water this summer, potentially causing violence and economic devastation. Tony Barboza, a University of Colorado Ted Scripps fellow and Los Angeles Times journalist who accompanied the class, wrote that “one of the nation's fiercest water wars is on the verge of erupting again.” It was into this water war the class journeyed to learn about the law, politics, and personalities behind the KBRA-KHSA, and to study the basin’s other natural resources, and economic and community activities.

Over the nine days, students met with leaders throughout the basin, starting in Portland, Oregon and ending at the mouth of the Klamath River in California.

“Being on the ground talking to Klamath tribal members on their ancestral lands; to multi-generation timber employees in small California towns; and to government officials and mediators trying to balance the tensions between competing groups illustrates the tensions in natural resources policy in a way that even the best classroom experience can't do,” said Mike Weissman, a 2L in the class.

Students also learned the importance of collaboration. “We met with multiple groups, from those who negotiated the KBRA to those who are navigating co-management of our nation's forests. The groups have, in the face of uncertainty and conflict, tried to avoid the courts, come together, see each other as individuals with shared community values, and negotiate a way forward. As law students trained to work within our adversary system, we learned the power of compromise, something we will carry with us throughout our careers,” said Ashley Palomaki, a 3L in the class.

Students learned firsthand from the leaders in the basin. “All of the many community and tribal leaders who volunteered their time to show us specific restoration projects on the river and in the mountains were extremely knowledgeable; it was enlightening and an honor to have them as guides,” said Morgan Figuers, a 3L in the class.

After returning to Denver at the conclusion of the illuminating seminar field trip, the class completed seminar papers on topics ranging from an analysis of the KBRA-KHSA to federal land management issues to geothermal energy. “Environmental and natural resources law courses teach the importance and past and present of things like public land in the United States; resources on those lands like timber; endangered species, and threats to them; and the risks of pollution generated by daily human activities. But it was our trip to the Klamath Basin, more than any other course in the curriculum that really drove home the human aspect of these policy debates,” said Weissman.