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Klamath farmers confront dry year, legal challenge
California Farm Bureau Federation March 24, 2021 by Christine Souza
In the latest challenges to farming in the Klamath Basin, farmers have learned that the Klamath Water Project may not be able to divert water from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River until April 15, at the earliest. At the same time, a court case could affect farmers' ability to grow crops in federally managed lease lands in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
The legal case stems from a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service management plan for the refuges. It continues to allow the service to lease land for private agriculture, but also imposes new requirements on leaseholders.
Environmental groups challenged the plan's continued allowance of leasing refuge lands for agriculture as inconsistent with the refuges' purpose of waterfowl management. Conversely, the Tulelake Irrigation District challenged the new restrictions as inconsistent with the Kuchel Act, which identifies agriculture as a key purpose of the refuges.
California Farm Bureau Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said the Kuchel Act, passed in 1964, established the refuge and "stated that farmers would be able to coexist and lease the federal lands within the refuge for onging farming purposes."
In a brief submitted to the U.S. District Court of Appeal, the California Farm Bureau, Oregon Farm Bureau, Modoc County Farm Bureau, Siskiyou County Farm Bureau and Klamath-Lake County Farm Bureau advocated on behalf of Klamath Basin farmers.
"We want to protect their right to farm according to rules that the federal government originally developed for those leases," Scheuring said, adding that Farm Bureau members in the region "could be materially affected if agriculture is modified or terminated on lease lands within the refuge complex."
Farmer Marc Staunton of Tulelake, who leases refuge ground to farm grain and row crops, said, "There's not a lot more limiting you can do before you are just not farming, which I think is the goal of some of those groups."
Staunton noted the area that became the lease lands was originally to be sectioned off to be homesteaded.
"Then waterfowl groups recognized that there was a need to keep a refuge, and that led to the creation of lease-land farming," he said, adding that the Kuchel Act provided an alternative path "that was sustainable for the refuge and for farming."
With provisions that lease-land agriculture feature a cropping pattern of two-thirds cereal grains and one-third row crops, Staunton said, "We've always felt that we have an important role to play in the success of the Pacific Flyway."
Farmer John Crawford, president of the Tulelake Irrigation District board of directors, farms on the refuge and said he is proud of local farmers' contribution to the waterfowl population.
"We leave a tremendous amount of grain standing there for ducks and geese every year. Right now, there's thousands of geese utilizing that standing grain that was left last fall," Crawford said.
Outside of the ongoing legal battles, Klamath Basin farmers are bracing for what they fear will be another severe drought year.
With record-low inflows into Upper Klamath Lake, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it anticipates it will not have enough water this summer to meet minimum requirements for endangered fish, let alone to fulfill irrigation demands.
Crawford said 2021 has been "a horrible water year" in the Klamath Basin.
"There's some talk now that we might not be able to start irrigating until June 1st," he said. "In the project, there's a lot of garlic right now that was planted in the fall and it's terribly dry and it could use water today. If it doesn't get water till June 1, it probably won't survive."
Delays in water deliveries until June 1 could also "completely eliminate the onion industry from the Klamath Project," Crawford said.
In his case, Staunton said, "We're just like everyone else: We're in kind of plan B, C and D mode, but trying to make the best decisions with the very limited resources with some groundwater and a very limited allocation."
He said he's "trying to decide which crops take the most water and are the longest season, and are having to make really tough calls."
The Bureau of Reclamation, with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, operates the Klamath Project under an interim management plan through 2023, which prioritizes water for shortnose suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and salmon in the Klamath River.
In a March 12 letter to Klamath Basin irrigation districts, the bureau said water "is currently unavailable from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River for irrigation purposes within the Klamath Project."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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