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A dry January foreshadows another tough year for the Klamath Basin

News10 by Tyler Myerly 1/24/22

A drought-stricken 2021 and a January that hasn’t brought much rain has many officials throughout the Klamath Basin concerned for operations in 2022.

Gene Souza, Klamath Irrigation District Manager, says they’re anticipating an April water delivery to its users at the latest. He says with how low the reservoirs are right now, he’d need to pull water from the lake starting in February and that request has already been denied by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR).

According to the Klamath Water Users Association, 100 percent of Klamath County is affected by drought with over 87 percent in extreme drought. During extreme drought conditions, planting is delayed, lakes and reservoir levels are extremely low, and wildfire risk is extremely high.

The annual precipitation average for Klamath County is 14 inches, but between the 2020 and 2021 water year, the county saw a total of 16.25 inches below average for the two years combined. Souza says many people that rely on that water had to make big sacrifices last year during the drought.


“All the stories from last year of people digging into every savings that they had just to make it through last year, with hopes that this year would be better,” Souza said. “If it’s not, it’s going to be a rough year for my neighbors and my communities.”

One person who relies on that water all year long is Scott Seus, a farmer in south county. He plants crops like onions which are planted in April, around the time water is delivered to users, but he also produces garlic which isn’t planted until fall. He says, planning each year is only getting more difficult.

“We’re having to make decisions with our eyes half shut, take it on a leap of faith that mother nature is going to provide water to us,” Seus said. “Last couple years with the droughts we’ve been having and the political scenarios that we’ve been under, we haven’t had that water.”

Seus says he’s been having to adjust operations to meet the resource, adding that time used to be the limited resource and now it’s water.

“So we scale back our program, and that means people are getting less hours,” Seus said. “That’s impacting them at home, it’s impacting the businesses in town.”

Seus, who's also an organizer of Shut Down-Fed Up, said even though November and December brought a lot of snow, the Bootleg and other fires from last summer will affect how long that snowpack realistically sticks around.

“When that canopy of the forest goes away, that snow pack can melt off extremely fast,” Seus said. “The reservoirs aren’t meant to hold an entire year’s worth of water at the same time.”

According to the Klamath Water Users Association, as of mid-January, the snow water that feeds Upper Klamath Lake requires an additional 48% in order to reach annual median levels.

Another piece of the community that is affected by the lack of rain are the schools throughout Klamath County. Glen Szymoniak, Klamath County School District Superintendent, says that the schools and its students are both directly and indirectly affected by the lack of rain.

“Lack of water affects farming and ranching families and the dry season that sparks wildfires affects families and students too,” Szymoniak said.

He says that many times, students have to miss school during fire years and over time, many families have moved out of the district because the basin wasn’t conducive to business anymore.

The direct effects are more of a concern in south county, specifically Lost River High School. Szymoniak said as the water tables were dropping, the levels in their wells were too.

“We were afraid that if it went dry we were going to have to start putting cisterns in and trucking water in just for drinking water, flush water and lunch and stuff like that,” Szymoniak said.

While rainfall can’t be controlled, the management of water can and irrigators think there could be better solutions than what’s being done right now. Souza said the last few years, he’s been having a difficult time delivering the water he needs because of limitations put in place by the BOR.

Each year, the BOR decides how much water goes to irrigators, tribes, and the local ecosystems like the Klamath River. Because of the endangered species that exist in the Klamath River and the Endangered Species Act, even during low-water years, a certain amount of water must be released into the river. The constituents that get limited in drought years are the irrigators.

“The water that we take out to grow crops to sustain our families and communities, that water comes down here [Tule Lake] and benefits birds, fish, and other wildlife, bald eagle, wolves, coyotes,” said Souza.

However, Sump 1A of Tule Lake is completely dry and cracked as of January 2022, which means there were no fish, birds, or other elements of the ecosystem that generally exists there.

2019 was a good year for the Klamath Project in terms of annual precipitation totals. Upper Klamath Lake was at flood levels, however, instead of the excess water being partitioned between the river and reservoirs, all the excess water was released into the Klamath River under the 2019 Biological Opinions.

The Bureau of Reclamation said the reason was to flush a parasite in the river, the polychaete worm which infects the salmon in the river.

Souza’s biggest frustration is that the water they use for their irrigation district all ends up back in the Klamath River anyways. He says whatever water runs off of farms and ranches and through the county all runs into the wildlife refuges, at which point excess water is pumped out to the river.

Souza says the way water is managed could be adjusted throughout the year to suit both the endangered species, as well as the economy and livelihoods that rely on the water since the salmon that is endangered is only in the Klamath River for a small portion of the year.

He says unfortunately, the way the BOR is currently limiting the water supply doesn't fully consider every constituent that relies on the limited water supply.

“In the current set of people who control the fate of the wildlife and the ecosystem here, every one of those people reside in Washington D.C.,” said Souza. “And very few have spent any time here in the Klamath Basin.”





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