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Reclamation to release 50,000 acre-feet of water to Klamath Project; provide $20M in drought response

Herald and News by Gene Warnick April 12, 2022

The Klamath Project will receive water from the Bureau of Reclamation this year, after being shut out in 2021.

But the amount is barely a drop in the bucket for a region experiencing one of the driest years in a century.

Reclamation announced Monday the project will receive approximately 50,000 acre-feet of water to allow for limited irrigation beginning April 15. That’s approximately one-seventh of what’s available in Upper Klamath Lake.

The bureau also announced a total of $20 million in immediate aid through the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency for this year’s irrigation season. An additional $5 million in technical assistance is being made available to Klamath Basin tribes for their projects.

“The Klamath Basin is experiencing prolonged and extreme drought conditions that we have not seen since the 1930s,” said Reclamation acting commissioner David Palumbo in a news release. “We will continue to monitor the hydrology and adaptively manage conditions in close coordination with project water users, tribes and state and federal agency partners. Reclamation is dedicated to collaborating with all stakeholders to get through another difficult year and keep working toward long-term solutions for the basin.”

The announcement brought a critical response from the Klamath Water Users Association, which estimated the total is about 15% of what farmers and ranchers need.

“We have 170,000 acres that could be irrigated this year and we’re ready to get to work,” KWUA President Ben DuVal, who farms with his wife and daughters on land served by the project in Tulelake, said in a news release. “On a single acre, we can produce over 50,000 pounds of potatoes, or 6,000 pounds of wheat. This year, most of that land will not produce any food because the government is denying water for irrigation. We’ll just be trying to keep the weeds and dust under control.”

Ernest Conant, the regional director of reclamation’s California-Great Basin Region was empathetic in a conference call with media members Monday.

“I wish we had better news,” Conant said. “Obviously there are no winners in this critical year as all interests are suffering — fisheries, farmers tribes and waterfowl alike — but given the current hydrology that we have to work with, we did the best job we could.”

Gene Souza, the executive director of the Klamath Irrigation District (KID), said the “bright side” is that there will be some water available this year.

“I was thankful it was not zero and I was locked out of my gate,” Souza said in a phone interview. “But we’re still talking about numbers that are not enough to provide the economic stability of this community. ... The farmers are the spigot that continually gets turned on and off.”

Farmers in the basin are restricted from using water stored in Upper Klamath Lake, which is home to several species of endangered sucker fish that are important to the tribes. Water is also sent down the Klamath River for threatened Coho salmon.

The 50,000 acre-feet is subject to meeting an Upper Klamath Lake elevation of no less than 4,138.15 feet by the end of the water year, with the objective of no less than 4,139.2 feet through July 15, to protect spawning sucker fish.

Conant was asked whether inflation and food shortages were considered in Reclamation’s decision.

“That’s in the back of everyone’s mind, but we have to comply with federal law, including the Endangered Species Act,” he said. “That was the driving force. We all understand and appreciate the need for food safety and security, but ... all we can hope for is for hydrology to improve.”

That might not come soon enough for farmers and ranchers in the basin.

Last week, KID held a ballot in which 319 of the 377 members who voted said they’d be willing to risk their federal drought funding for more water.

Conant stressed unauthorized diversions of water will result in reductions to the project’s water allocation, and appropriate legal action will be pursued.

“We certainly hope that’s not the case now that we do have an allocation, even though it’s nominal,” Conant said of unauthorized diversions. “”We’re hoping irrigators will cooperate with us and manage the supply that we have.”

The Klamath Tribes sent out a news release decrying the KID vote.

“The only conclusion we can draw from it is that KID plans to increase its ongoing, illegal diversions from Upper Klamath Lake,” the release said. “We have heard much talk from the project irrigators about ‘the need for responsible behavior’ and ‘cooperation so that we can keep the peace.’ Was it only talk? KID’s leadership should think carefully about the consequences of further theft, further treaty violations and the escalation of tensions. Be responsible neighbors.”

Vice Chairman Frankie Myers of the Yurok Tribe told the Associated Press the fact that salmon, sucker fish and waterfowl are competing for the region’s water was a “direct sign of the ecological collapse brought by water withdrawals.”

“Although we are gratified that the river is afforded minimal protections under this plan, it is no time for celebration. Salmon runs will continue to suffer under these conditions, and as climate change intensifies, such protections will become increasingly important,” Myers said.

The Klamath Tribes accused KID of illegally charging the A Canal, the 9-mile route from the Upper Klamath Lake to KID’s hydro facility, in recent weeks, but both Conant and Souza said that was scheduled maintenance to get ready for this year’s water flow.

“While reclamation has provided us some opportunities to work with them, the farmers and ranchers of this basin and our community all depend on agriculture. About one in three jobs in the basin can be tied to agriculture,” Souza said. “The loss is going to be felt in restaurants and grocery stores and potentially in food market across the nation.

“It’s just a shame we’ve got 350,000 acre-feet of water in Upper Klamath and we’re only (getting) a small piece.”



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