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Klamath Basin farmers may see delay in irrigation season

Issue Date: March 18, 2009
Christine Souza

Facing a potential delay in their irrigation season, Klamath Basin farmers face a nervous few weeks as they watch the water level in Upper Klamath Lake.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation notified irrigators last week that low lake levels and low inflows into the lake could result in a delayed start to the irrigation season. The current lake level in Upper Klamath Lake is approximately one foot below the minimum elevation identified in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion. The bureau said it is closely coordinating with local, state and federal governments and with Klamath Basin organizations, to find ways to fulfill water supply obligations for fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.

This makes planting season nerve wracking for growers like Marshall Staunton of Tulelake. Staunton experienced the 2001 water shut-off, when 100 percent of the water available was diverted to the threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River and endangered suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake.

"Everything is kind of touch-and-go right now and I'm not hearing solid answers. I am hearing that we will have enough supply once we start the season, but we are not going to start the season until we reach biological-opinion lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake," said Staunton, who grows onions, potatoes, alfalfa and peppermint. "The worst-case scenario is that planting is delayed. If we open the (Klamath Water) Project in mid-April, I am OK on almost everything. If it is the first of May, I'm in trouble."

The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that seasonal inflows to the lake will be about 71 percent of average. The current lake level and lower than average estimated inflow may delay the start of operations to mid-April, with deliveries in late April.

"Based on NRCS estimates and lake levels, Reclamation will need to adjust project operations accordingly," said Susan Fry, area manager for Reclamation's Klamath Project. "It is critically important that when minimum lake levels are met, and Reclamation begins deliveries, irrigators conserve water at every opportunity. Conservation is the key to having an adequate supply of water for the entire irrigation season."

Irrigators in the Klamath Basin face a waiting game, to see if the region will experience another series of rainstorms to fill Upper Klamath Lake to acceptable levels for the protected fish as well as have enough water for local farms. Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Greg Addington said growers hope Mother Nature comes through.

"It all depends on the next 30 days of weather. If it is cold and wet, we'll be fine and we might even be able to start close to on time in early April. If it is hot and dry, that two-week delay can turn into a four-to-six week delay," Addington said.

This delay could be problematic for growers who have contracts to grow certain crops. The Klamath Basin is one of the top potato-growing regions in the nation and many growers have contracts with Frito-Lay. Staunton said he's particularly worried about his contracted onions, which are typically planted in early April, shortly after the start of the basin's water season.

"The longer we go, the worse it is going to be," Addington said, speaking for irrigators in the Klamath Basin. "You get to the point where, if you are so unsure, are you going to invest in planting those onions if you are not sure you are going to be able to get water on them?

"A lot of Klamath Basin farmers have had their eyes focused on the water issues of the Central Valley, hoping that things work out for those growers too. Based on what is going on in both regions, this just shows that the water allocation process is broken and that some things fundamentally need to change," Addington said. "We cannot manage with the kind of uncertainty that we've had to deal with."

Visit the Reclamation Web site at for current information regarding lake levels and estimated inflow.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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