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Klamath Project irrigators say more drought relief needed after A Canal shutdown

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — As Klamath Project irrigators brace for a year with little to no water, farm groups are calling for additional funding to help communities weather the extreme drought and avoid economic devastation.

The unfolding crisis reached a crescendo on May 12 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it would close the Project’s A Canal for entire 2021 irrigation season.

Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said tensions are understandably high given the enormous stakes. His focus now is securing much-needed drought relief for 1,200 family farms and ranches to survive.

“We need these dollars to help get us through this year,” Simmons said. “We’re really focused on exploring every possible venue where someone could obtain that relief.”

Reclamation has said it will provide $15 million for agricultural producers through the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, along with $3 million in technical assistance for local tribes to benefit endangered fish.

But Simmons said much more is needed to rescue irrigators facing an unprecedented and dire situation.

The Klamath Project Drought Response Agency has said it will focus primarily on compensating farmers for idling groundwater this year, unless significantly more funding is made available. Applications will likely be open in the first half of June, according to the agency.

On May 6 — one week before the A Canal was shut down — the KWUA, Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Water Resources Congress sent a letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, seeking millions of dollars of additional drought aid from the state.

In part, the groups requested:

• $6 million in funding for farmers impacted by drought, administered through Business Oregon.

• $9 million for the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency to cover increased groundwater pumping costs, improving domestic wells and other Project maintenance work.

• $1 million for long-term drought resiliency projects, administered through the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

• $500,000 toward establishing a cost-share program to help irrigators install flow measuring devices aimed at conserving water.

“While some amount of federal resources have been identified for the Project, those funds do not match the scope of the problem, leaving major impacts and unmet needs,” the groups stated in their letter.

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, did not address these specific requests but said the governor is committed to working with Oregon’s congressional delegation, “in pursuit of all avenues of relief for the Klamath Basin.”

Brown has declared a drought emergency in Klamath County, along with seven others in Oregon including Wheeler, Morrow, Lake, Jackson, Gilliam, Douglas and Baker counties.

U.S. Reps. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., and Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., have also introduced a $57 million disaster aid proposal to assist the Klamath Basin. Within that package, $40 million would go directly to agricultural producers through USDA programs.

Another $2.5 million would go to families whose residential wells have run dry, and $4 million to irrigation districts to repair canals damaged by the lack of water.

The proposal would allocate $3 million in aid for commercial fishermen, and $5 million to tribes and tribal governments in food aid through the USDA and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Last week’s decision by the Bureau of Reclamation to eliminate water deliveries to farmers and wildlife is absolutely crippling to the Klamath Basin,” LaMalfa said. “The federal government has failed to properly manage the water in the basin, and Congress must take action to help prevent further damage to the area’s residents, crops and wildlife.”

Meanwhile, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Oregon and California announced $1.8 million in funding on Tuesday for Klamath Basin drought assistance through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

NRCS funding covers a variety of practices to reduce soil erosion and health, such as no-till, reduced till, mulching, cover crops and wind barriers. Farmers can apply at their local NRCS field office. Applications are due June 16.

Ben DuVal, a Klamath Project irrigator who grows alfalfa hay and raises cattle near Tulelake, Calif., said farmers are still adapting to this year’s harsh reality.

“Plans are changing by the minute,” DuVal said. “We’re trying to get the maximum use out of a very limited supply of well water.”

DuVal, who serves as president of the KWUA, said he has been impressed with the community, watching as neighbors help neighbors to get the most out of every last drop of water.

“If there’s a bright spot in all of this, that’s got to be it,” he said. “This is a good community, full of good people.”



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              Page Updated: Thursday May 27, 2021 02:15 AM  Pacific

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