Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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A Delicate Balance
Horsefly Irrigation District is tasked with keeping water safe for drinking for Bonanza-area residents
H&N photo by Andrew Mariman The Harpold Dam, owned by Horsefly Irrigation
District, controls the Lost River level to prevent contaminating the Bonanza-area
By Sara Hottman, Herald and News 8/19/10
For nearly two decades, Horsefly Irrigation District has balanced water pressure between Big Spring and Lost River to ensure the river doesn’t backflow into the spring, where the groundwater that fills Bonanza residents’ wells surfaces.
Any other year it’s an arduous task, said Don Russell, general manager for Horsefly, but this year groundwater started a foot below normal, threatening farmers’ ability to irrigate their crops using wells.
Each watering season, from July to September, the town of Bonanza warns residents to watch for contamination in well water as groundwater levels fall with increased domestic use.
Big Spring flows into Lost River. If the groundwater level drops, spring water can stop flowing. When the water stops flowing, it reduces water pressure and Lost River flows backward into Big Spring. If unclean surface water mixes with pure groundwater, illness-causing bacteria like E. coli could contaminate domestic well water, used for consumption and bathing.
Currently, Lost River is at its minimum level in order to stay below the spring, Russell said. Horsefly will maintain the level because the Oregon Water Resource Department can stop irrigation if domestic water is threatened.
“We’re at the point where we’re very close to finishing the crops,” Russell said. “Most irrigators have senior water rights, but domestic users always have priority.
“We have rights through the Water Resource Department to pump at 59 (cubic feet per second). But if the department chooses to shut off groundwater wells, really our only source of water right now, then we will have to board up the river and try to save the crops that we can.”
Origins of the obligation
After the 1992 drought in the Basin, the district went through the permit process to install wells so they could irrigate through another drought, Russell said.
The permit stipulated that Horsefly Irrigation District balance water pressure by keeping Lost River six inches below Big Spring, where the aquifer that holds groundwater surfaces.
The town of Bonanza doesn’t have its own water system, so all households, about 150, must use wells.
There has not been any backflow this summer or for several years, Russell said.
This summer, the seasonal increase in watering, compounded with farmers’ irrigating and an already low groundwater level, has made the balancing equation additionally difficult, risking domestic users’ water quality and farmers’ ability to irrigate.
“It’s a very delicate and troublesome job each year, but it’s just something we do right now until we arrive at a better solution,” Russell said.
Russell said the most logical solution to the balancing act also is the most expensive and faces the most government hurdles.
“We need a huge reservoir that we could fill with storm water and snow water and groundwater that we could store and then use through tough times,” Russell said. “Our representatives have got to see the importance of making an investment in the American people, in storage.
“We rush to Haiti, we rush to Pakistan, and I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s time the leaders of this nation realize (water storage) is life, is prosperity.”
Russell said a store of water could serve growers during drought conditions while also protecting domestic well users’ water source.
Creating a water reservoir would be expensive, but it would also face a multitude of federal and state environmental assessments and reports to fulfill the Environmental Policy, Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
“It’s time that we face that and figure out how to help people,” Russell said.
How they do it
The Horsefly Irrigation District controls Lost River levels with a dam located between Burgdorf and Harpold roads along North Poe Valley Road.
To lower the water level, district staff use giant hooks to pull a timber across the dam, holding more water on one side.
"It's the only way we have to drop the river at this time," said Don Russell, general manager for Horsefly. "It's strictly manual."
No water from lake
Horsefly Irrigation District's main source of irrigation water is Clear Lake Reservoir, but this year, the district's members didn't receive any surface water from the lake. Clear Lake is home to endangered species of suckers and the reservoir is a poor storage facility because it is shallow and has a large surface area.
Most of the district's members were forced to use groundwater this year in lieu of the surface water. Much of the surface water Horsefly delivers is recycled from fields in Langell Valley, the eastern portion of which is receiving water from Gerber Reservoir, but the western portion is dry for the second year because it relies entirely on Clear Lake for irrigation deliveries.
Page Updated: Friday August 20, 2010 02:37 AM Pacific
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