Klamath Basin farmers face short water allocation

Issue Date: March 24, 2010
Christine Souza

The 1,300 families who farm land in the Klamath Water Project on the California-Oregon border must now decide how to proceed, following last week's announcement by the federal government that they will receive considerably less water this year.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last week that the Bureau of Reclamation 2010 operations plan for the Klamath Basin estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of average annual releases, or approximately 150,000 acre-feet of water, will be available to irrigators. This season's reduced water allocation is a reminder of 2001, when farm water was cut off entirely as the needs of the threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River and endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers in Upper Klamath Lake received priority over farm irrigation. This time, water releases will begin once Upper Klamath Lake reaches a level protective of endangered sucker fish and is expected to remain above that level for the remainder of the irrigation season.

Salazar's announcement comes just weeks after Klamath Basin stakeholders including the Klamath Water Users Association, environmentalists, tribes, fishing groups and government agencies signed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement—a dam removal plan described as a comprehensive solution for the region's water needs.

Until the region officially moves forward with that plan, Klamath Basin irrigators are subject to business as usual. For this year, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that irrigation deliveries could begin as soon as May 15, depending upon additional precipitation in the Klamath Basin and Upper Klamath Lake levels.

"Typical irrigation in the project starts late March or early April, so when you start talking about water delivery in May there is no way to avoid crop damage and decreased yields at best, and total failure at the worst," said Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Greg Addington.

Another factor in the decreased water allocations for the Klamath Basin this year is the lack of precipitation.

"Reservoir storage in the basin is currently 51 percent of normal, snowpack is 71 percent of normal and precipitation is 81 percent of normal. These numbers reflect the scope of the problem," Addington said. "Lower snowpack and precipitation are compounded by a federal court order that has required the Bureau of Reclamation to send large amounts of water downstream all winter long to protect the coho salmon."

The net result, he said, is that Upper Klamath Lake has reached its lowest point since accurate measurements have been kept, sometime before 1970. He described the lake as "lower now than it was in the worst drought year on record, 1992."

Now that Klamath Basin farmers have received a general idea of the amount of water that could be allocated to them this season, Addington said, farmers are apprehensive.

"The mood is quite anxious here. Farmers have worked hard to develop markets and contracts with processors since 2001. The prospect of now losing those markets or multiyear contracts is devastating," Addington said. "Some are drilling wells and some are looking for ground elsewhere. Others are already deciding to take a loss by choosing to forgo crops like potatoes and onions, in order to plant grain or some kind of cover crop that might survive with limited water."

Mike Byrne, a Klamath Project irrigator who operates a cattle and feed business in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, said he remembers all too well the struggles that he and his fellow basin residents experienced during the 2001 water shutoff.

Byrne met with fellow farmers shortly after this year's Interior Department announcement to discuss how water supplies might be distributed.

"We still have some time, but we don't have a drop-dead date on when the water will be available and where it is going to go," he said. "This is not a lot of water for all of these acres."

So far, Byrne said, he does not have any crops planted on land that would be supplied by the Klamath Project, but he does have crops in the ground that have access to well water supplies.

"We're trying to figure out what we are going to do. I don't think anybody has any plans yet," Byrne said. "It is the row crop guys that are the ones that are really in turmoil."

To provide some assistance for drought-stricken farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service announced $2 million for California and Oregon for a special drought initiative for the Klamath Basin. The signup period continues through April 9.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.