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Klamath area ranchers cope with lack of water

followed by

Watermaster, rights determine haves, have nots

by CRAIG REED for the Capital Press 7/2/13

Ten days ago, rancher Eric Duarte shipped a couple loads of yearlings to a feedlot to ease the pressure on his pastures near Beatty, Ore.

He anticipates there'll be more early shipments of cattle because there isn't water to irrigate and keep the pastures green and growing to feed the animals.

Duarte and other ranchers in the drainage areas north of Klamath Lake are being forced to make decisions about their livestock earlier than normal after they were shut off from their water sources. Properties in the drainages of the Sprague, Williamson, Wood and several other rivers were shut off from irrigating from those waterways a couple weeks ago because the water level in the upper end of the lake had to be maintained to protect fish habitat. The Klamath Tribe called in its water rights to protect traditional fishing grounds.

"There's a total of 105,000 head of cattle involved in this mess," said Duarte, owner of Duarte Livestock. "We're all in the same boat north of the lake. We'll try to manage this deal the best we can, lighten up on our fields as we go along. Get rid of the yearlings and wean some calves early ... in September rather than in October."

Ace Felder, who has 500 yearlings grazing along the Sprague River, said he's already made plans to ship those animals to a feedlot around Aug. 1. Yearlings that are shipped early will probably be 100 to 200 pounds lighter than usual at shipping time, in turn lightening the rancher's income.

Tom Mallams, a Beatty area rancher and a Klamath County commissioner, said he had heard some cattle had already been moved out of the area. He also said some livestock that normally comes into the area from California for pasture were never shipped north this spring.

"Some guys knew there could possibly be a water shortage here so they knew they couldn't afford to haul cattle to Oregon pastures and then 30 days later have to haul them someplace else," Mallams said. "I guess they left them in California or hauled them to other areas that had little better pasture. I don't know where they're going."

Mallams explained that a dam on the Williamson River that backed up water for irrigation was taken out several years ago and a multi-million-dollar pumping station was built.

"The government then said it won't take the water," Mallams said. "We got by for four or five years and now they've turned us off.

"I expect they could be regulating ground water (wells) before the season is over and that's something they said years ago they would never do," he added. "Once again they could change the rules because now they're saying every well in the Klamath Basin is connected to surface water."

The ranchers said buying hay to carry their livestock through the summer would be too expensive, and they can't afford to use their own hay because it'll be needed later for mother cows during the winter.

A hay shortage is expected in the basin, especially if producers south of the lake are cut off early and can't irrigate for third or fourth cuttings.

"We're anticipating a shortage of hay because of drought issues in other areas (California and Nevada) and their need for hay," said David King, a rancher in the Malin, Ore., area and president of the Klamath Basin Hay Growers. "There could be a cutoff (of water) in late August or September for growers in the lower basin."

"We're watching the biology of the upper Klamath Lake and expect it could impact us soon enough," said Luther Horsley of Midland, Ore., south of Klamath Falls. "With conservation and water mitigation programs, hopefully we'll get through it, but maybe not. There's a lot of concerned people, whether in the project or off."

Mallams said the overall water shortage in Klamath County will have "a horrendous financial impact. It's going to affect every business in the entire Klamath Basin."

Duarte said he believes there is enough water in the Klamath Basin for everybody and that all parties should get to a table, negotiate and give a little.

Horsley said ag producers are being conservative with water and not squandering the resource.

"I fully understand the despair and anxiety of those guys in the upper basin," he said. "We went through that in 2001. We had to sell good mother cows in 2001 because we didn't have feed for them. It was painful. Cows want to eat and drink every day. They don't care about politics."


Watermaster, rights determine haves, have nots

By ANNA WILLARD for the Capital Press

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. -- In the complicated world of Klamath Basin water, Scott White is the man in the middle.

He is watermaster for District 17, which covers most of Klamath County and a small portion Lake County.

His job is regulating the use of surface water in the district.

Following the completion of the Oregon Water Resources Department's adjudication in early March, White and his staff have been monitoring river flows and delivering notices to stop irrigating. The adjudication laid out who owns the surface water rights in the area, and where they are in the pecking order --seniority -- when there isn't enough water for everyone.

This year, water is tight, and the Klamath Tribes and Klamath Project irrigators have called for water. Their water rights have been deemed more senior than about 200 upper basin irrigators, who are being shut off.

White said a dry winter resulting in insufficient flows to Upper Klamath Lake tributaries is a major factor in the decisions to shut off water in the Upper Klamath Basin.

"The flows are so low this year there aren't enough paper water rights to cover it, so it goes to the most senior users and the junior water rights are shut off," White said Monday before the rally in Klamath Falls. "We haven't received any pushback, but nobody is happy."

White said that when informing irrigators that their water needs to be turned off, his staff works hard to be tactful and respectful. The first step is to track down the owner, which is not always easy, he said. In some cases there are absentee landowners, the land is being leased or sometimes people are just hard to find, White said.

He said there has been only one instance where his staff physically shut off water, but that was a public diversion and irrigators downstream were contacted beforehand.

Now, his staff is reassessing flows. He said if there is water that can be turned back on they will do so, but White is doubtful.

"If we have 100 (cubic feet per second) extra, people may be able to turn on their water, but in a drought year maybe not," White said.

He added that they have completed work on the Sycan, Sprague and Williamson rivers.

Now the Wood River, Sand and Scott creeks have been called on, but his office will evaluate what has already been done before moving on to other drainages.

Wood River is near Fort Klamath and Sand and Scott creeks run in northern Klamath County near the Klamath Marsh.



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