Klamath water allocation brings relief for farmers


Issue Date: April 13, 2016
By Christine Souza
A Klamath Basin field is prepared for planting.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Farmer Scott Seus of Tulelake says a full allocation of water for the Klamath Water Project “has been a long time coming” after years of drought, and will give him flexibility to farm without having to worry about running out of water at midsummer.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Farmers in the Klamath Basin, which straddles the California-Oregon border, say they’re relieved by the announcement that the Klamath Water Project will receive a full supply of water. Farmer Scott Seus of Tulelake says his field, above, will soon be in need of irrigation.
Photo/Kathy Coatney

After several years of drought and water shortages, irrigators in the Klamath Water Project will receive a full allocation of water to irrigate crops this season.

"We had a reasonably good winter. We got the snowpack and the precipitation we needed to fill (Upper Klamath) lake. It is a nice relief given the last few years of drought," said Scott White, executive director for the Klamath Water Users Association, who described previous water shortages as "extremely burdensome."

The federal forecast that determines the water allocation for the Klamath Water Project was released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency's operations plan for the project estimates the available water supply, the volume of water to be released to the Klamath River for coho salmon and the water supply to be reserved in Upper Klamath Lake for Lost River and shortnose suckers, consistent with a joint biological opinion prepared by federal agencies to address the health of the protected fish species.

Based on the elevation of Upper Klamath Lake and forecasted inflows, the bureau announced that the Klamath Project irrigation supply from Upper Klamath Lake this season is expected to be 388,680 acre-feet, a full supply. The bureau also said it anticipates 29,000 acre-feet to be available from Clear Lake Reservoir—83 percent of full supply—and approximately 35,000 acre-feet from Gerber Reservoir, a 100 percent supply. As of April 1, the snowpack supplying the Klamath Project was 113 percent of average and the total precipitation was 119 percent of average.

"After four years of drought, Klamath Project water users are facing a close-to-average water year," said David Murillo, the bureau's Mid-Pacific Region director. "This is the most water available for delivery since 2011 and is a positive change."

Diversified farmer Scott Seus of Tulelake said he is proceeding with planting "what we want, when we want," something he hasn't been able to do in several years.

"I've been watching lake levels and I know the mountains around us have snow on them, and it's pretty nice to see. It's been several years since we've had a real, full allocation," Seus said. "It seems like it's been forever."

Seus said he is planting horseradish, onions, garlic and grain and is moving forward with crops such as peppermint and spearmint.

"A year with water means flexibility for us to farm the way that makes the most agronomic sense for us to try to generate a profit and a strong crop, without the fear of a draconian measure like not having water midsummer," Seus said. "It is the first time in a long time that we looked at it and said, 'I'm going to go plant something there even though I don't have well water backup,' and it's been a long time coming."

The Klamath water-supply announcement came days after officials from the states of California and Oregon, the federal government and the utility company PacifiCorp signed an amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement to remove four dams on the Klamath River. The parties also signed a second agreement with project irrigators, called the Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement, meant to help them avoid potentially adverse financial and regulatory impacts associated with the return of fish runs to the Upper Klamath Basin, anticipated after dams are removed.

Parties to the amended dam-removal agreement indicated they intend to pursue its implementation through the administrative process governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If approved, PacifiCorp would transfer title of the Klamath River dams to a nonfederal entity that would assume liability and take the appropriate steps to decommission and remove the dams in 2020.

An earlier version of the dam-removal agreement and the larger Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement resulted from a decade of negotiations among Klamath Project irrigators and environmental, tribal and fisheries interests in the basin, and included water certainty for basin farmers. After the U.S. Congress failed to pass legislation by the end of last year to move the earlier agreements forward, irrigators learned in February that they had not been included in the amended dam-removal agreement, or KHSA.

White, who spoke during the signing ceremony last week, stated that "the mission of our organization does not include dam removal, but we congratulate and respect the parties involved in completing the work to realize the amended KHSA."

As for whether the secondary agreement will lead to water supply certainty for basin farmers, White said he remains concerned "that the amended KHSA is moving forward without the remainder of the full package that we were willing to support. The amended KHSA is not the solution to the basin. There is work to do to address all interests."

Seus said he's hopeful the water certainty that project irrigators worked so hard to achieve will ultimately materialize.

"At this point, it's completely up to people wanting to do the right thing," Seus said. "The rest of the people that have been there since day one and didn't come in on the deal when it just became about dams, they are the ones that are going to have to help us to maintain our irrigation heritage here in the Klamath Basin and give my son an opportunity to farm."

In the meantime, downstream interests said they remain quite concerned about removal of the dams.

Siskiyou County Supervisor Grace Bennett called the decision to remove the dams "a tragedy for the people of Siskiyou County."

"With two-thirds of the Klamath River flowing through our county, we are the ones that will be left with the devastation that dam removal leaves behind. Our people have worked for over 30 years improving the water quality and quantity of the Klamath River and its tributaries to improve salmon runs; this will all be lost," Bennett said. "It is heartbreaking to see this happening and the views of local residents not considered and science being manipulated to achieve a predetermined goal of dam removal."

(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.