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Klamath Basin farmers face water shortages

Issue Date: April 15, 2015
By Christine Souza
The amount of irrigation water in his canal, above, is not enough to sustain a crop.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
With a limited supply of water recently announced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for 2015, Klamath Water Project farmer Ben DuVal of Tulelake says it will be a challenging season.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Ben DuVal, of Ben DuVal Farms Inc., points out a field of wheat stubble that he is unsure he will be able to plant this year because of the limited water supply to irrigators in the Klamath Water Project.
Photo/Kathy Coatney

Without much water to grow the crops that the Klamath Basin region is known for—such as potatoes, hay, grain, horseradish and peppermint—growers this season face a fourth consecutive year of drought. Many are left wondering how they are going to make it through.

Ben DuVal of Tulelake, who produces alfalfa hay and registered Black Angus cattle and operates a custom hay business, said he is especially concerned.

"We know that it is going to be a real challenging year," DuVal said. "It is always in question how things are going to play out. What is our water supply going to be? When can we take delivery of that water?

"Uncertainty is almost as bad as not having any water because if you don't know you are going to have water, you can't plan for it, you can't plant crops and you can't do anything unless you are sure that you are going to have it all year," he added.

Now, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has released its operations plan and drought plan for the Klamath Water Project, which outline water deliveries for the 2015 irrigation season. The operations plan 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 biological opinions 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 254,500 acre-feet, or 65 percent of full supply. There is no anticipated water supply available from Clear Lake Reservoir, and about 16,000 acre-feet from Gerber Reservoir, or 47 percent of full supply.

Noting the four consecutive dry years in the basin, the acting area manager of the bureau's Klamath Basin area office, Brian Person, said management of the limited water supply "will require extraordinary coordination and cooperation, but I am confident that based on the level of communication that has occurred to date, we will be able to make the most effective use of existing water supplies."

The bureau said the Klamath Basin had received 96 percent of average precipitation, but snowpack was only 7 percent of average. The Klamath Project relies on snowpack to sustain inflows to reservoirs during the summer in order to meet irrigation demands.

Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the figure released by the bureau was higher than he expected.

"I don't have a lot of faith in that (2015 irrigation supply) number. I think the feds and regulators are looking at that not as an allocation, but a cap," Addington said. "Subsequently, what they are saying is, 'We have very little confidence in a year like this.' If those inflows don't materialize, ultimately that is going to come out of our hide; that is usually what happens."

DuVal, who buys water from the Tulelake Irrigation District, said that with the water he does receive, he will irrigate established alfalfa fields; anything that he would have planted in other crops will be left fallow. Some fields have been fallowed for two years.

Regarding the use of supplemental groundwater, DuVal said, "We don't want to use it. It's expensive to pump, especially when you are in an irrigation district and are paying assessments and then have to turn around and pump your own well water anyway."

About two miles north of the California/Oregon border, Klamath Project irrigator Paul Crawford of Malin, Ore., said because he faces a zero allocation in his part of the basin, his few hundred acres of planted crops will be whittled down to 40 acres of hay, with much of the remainder dedicated to land idling and other government programs to help him get through the year.

"We're working on other options the best we can to figure out what we are going to do with this parcel of hay. It's been rough and we've been making patches, trying new things, such as transferring water. We use groundwater sources when we can," Crawford said. "This year, we're kind of in that situation where if we can't find a source of water, we will be losing those 40 acres that we've established."

Crawford, a young farmer, said he has no other income to support the farm this year.

The Klamath Project sustains approximately 1,200 farms and ranches that depend on the system for water supply and operate on more than 170,000 acres. In 2001, project water was shut off to meet the needs of protected fish species. Since then, Klamath growers have been asking for more water supply certainty.

"One reason why we are really pushing for the Klamath Restoration Settlement Agreement is because not only does it give us a designated block of water, we can have a good idea early in the season how the irrigation supply is going to look for the rest of the season," DuVal said.

Less than 10 years ago, the Klamath Water Users Association met with stakeholders, including environmentalists, tribes, fishing groups and government agencies, to negotiate a plan intended to guarantee water supply certainty for irrigation and restore what was once one of California's largest salmon runs. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement aim to establish sustainable water supplies and power rates for irrigators, restore fish habitat and help tribes; the plan calls for removal of all or part of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. The Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement brings about a settlement in the tributaries' lands to Upper Klamath Lake between irrigators who are not part of the Klamath Reclamation Project and the Klamath tribes. The agreements are now under consideration by Congress, with the introduction of the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act.

Siskiyou County Farm Bureau President Brandon Fawaz, who farms alfalfa hay in Etna, said farmers and ranchers along the Scott and Shasta rivers—who are not irrigators of the Klamath Project—were not included in the negotiations of the settlement agreements and are concerned about impacts to their farming operations once dams are removed.

"If the dams do come out, we are concerned that more pressure will be put on the Shasta and Scott rivers to help mitigate the lack of water that is flowing down the Klamath River," Fawaz said.

"It is a unique situation where most of the irrigation water in the project begins in Oregon, is distributed to farmers in Oregon and in Siskiyou and Modoc counties, but mitigates many of the 'restoration' projects in western Siskiyou County, where most of our membership farms with no project water, yet had no involvement along the way," he said.

"No farmer wants to stand in the way of his neighbor to farm, but we are in a very delicate situation," Fawaz said.

(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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