Amy Cordalis, who has served as the Yurok Tribe's general counsel, understands how important fishing is to her people and today is fighting to restore the health of the Klamath River, which has been hurt by climate change and environmental damage. (Credit: Matt Mais of the Yurok Tribe)
Amy Cordalis, who has served as the Yurok Tribe’s general counsel, is fighting to restore the health of the Klamath River, which has been hurt by climate change and environmental damage. (Credit: Matt Mais of the Yurok Tribe)

When Amy Cordalis tries to explain the relationship her tribe has with the Klamath River, a winding, majestic body of water that snakes down from Oregon into Northern California and empties out into the ocean, she struggles for words.

“That question is always difficult to answer,” she tells The Story Exchange, “because there’s really no words to describe it in the English language.”

The 41-year-old lawyer grew up on the Yurok Indian Reservation, an 88-square-mile patch of land that stretches across Del Norte and Humboldt counties, and follows the shape of the river. The Yuroks are known as the Salmon People, and the river is not only their lifeline for food and income, but it is part of their creation story.

“Fishing rights are a matter of cultural survival,” says Cordalis, “and the exercise of our sovereignty.” She comes from a line of fishers, and is a competent fisher herself. While many outsiders might think of fishing as a sport, to her family, and many Yuroks, it is an “an act of overcoming genocide, assimilation and oppression.”

Cordalis’ earliest memories involve fishing with her family on the Klamath, cleaning fish, and, of course, eating fish. “There’s really great pictures of me when I was nine months old and I’m doing this squat in diapers next to these salmon that are bigger than me,” she says. “I don’t remember being here in this life without fish in the river.”

And so earlier this year, when a catastrophic fish kill – the term for when hundreds of fish die simultaneously – happened on the river, decimating the salmon populations that the Yurok depend on, Cordalis’ fight for fishing rights, water rights, and the Tribe’s sovereign right to gather traditional foods became even more urgent.

Representing Her Tribe

Growing up, Cordalis knew few indigenous lawyers — if any. But as a student at the University of New Mexico, Cordalis took classes through the American Indian Law Center and was exposed to the unique relationship that tribes have with the U.S. government. She ultimately became a lawyer and was appointed general counsel for the Yurok Tribe in 2016, the first woman and Yurok citizen to do so. The mother of three joined the California Water Commission earlier this year but still works for the tribe on water and fishing rights. 

Rights are increasingly a critical issue. Not only do the Yuroks compete with Oregon farmers and other tribes upstream over use of the river, but the tribe is also petitioning to have three dams removed that the Yuroks believe are interrupting the Klamath River’s path and causing its ill health. 

“The river is so sick, it really is on the verge of ecological collapse,” Cordalis explains. “There’s nothing natural about the flows in the river right now.”

Built over a century ago as part of the Klamath River Hydroelectric Project, the dams provide very little hydropower nowadays, but removal is expensive. Local and state officials, including Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Northern California, have called demolition a waste of taxpayer money.  

For Cordalis, fighting to have the dams removed has been a lengthy, complex process — the removal was first touted back when Arnold Schwarzenegger was still governor of California — but the end may finally be in sight. “We’re making big gains in a lot of the regulatory permitting processes that’s required,” she says, and next comes an environmental policy review, in which regulators will study the impacts of dam removal on the landscape. The Yurok tribe will play an integral role in contributing knowledge of the ecosystem. The goal, she says, is to remove the dams by 2023.

The timing could not be more important, as the river’s dire health — not just because of the dams, but also due to overuse and drought, as the climate warms —  is impacting the Yurok’s once-plentiful fish supply. 

Preserving a Way of Life 

The fish kill this summer highlights how vulnerable the river’s salmon are to changes in the ecosystem. When biologists went to check on a salmon trap in June, during a regular monitoring survey, they found 361 dead juvenile Chinook salmon in one trap alone. Throughout the summer, more than 70% of the juvenile salmon population floated to the river surface, killed by a bacteria called ceratonova shasta, which spreads rapidly when fish are stressed and closely packed together.

Usually, an annual flush, released from the Upper Klamath Basin by the Bureau of Reclamation (a federal agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior) clears out the river of most of the disease. But this year, due to drought, the Bureau decided there simply wasn’t enough water to go around, and cancelled the flush, leaving the bacteria to multiply.

“Extinction never used to be part of the conversation,” says Jamie Holt, who has been working as a fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe for the past 23 years. “But now it’s a different story. The picture is changing rapidly, way faster than I thought that could change.”

The die-off made daily life even more difficult for Yurok households, who live on the reservation and depend on the river for a stable supply of fish. The average annual income of tribal members is $11,000, and some families live up to a six hour round-trip from the nearest grocery store.

Removing the dams, Cordalis believes, would help remedy the situation by returning the river to its wild state. That in turn would aid the health of the salmon.

She is also focused on the logistics of restoring the natural hydrograph of the river, essentially bringing water back. Further upstream, the river has been diverted for agricultural use, to support the Klamath irrigation project, a program developed by the Bureau of Reclamation to support farmers in southern Oregon to grow crops. 

“There is finally a realization that the Klamath basin is over-allocated,” says Cordalis. “There’s some strong, conflicting rights and we need a judge to come in and help us problem solve, and that’s where litigation comes in.” 

Despite the challenges ahead, Cordalis remains hopeful. Most recently, in a different case over water rights, she helped negotiate an agreement between the federal government and two tribes (the Yurok and the Klamath, who live at the source of the river) — and she believes it was the first time that has ever been achieved in the basin.

“It’s exciting, and it’s encouraging, and it gives me hope things are going to get better for the river.”