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'Make every drop count'; Klamath, Modoc Counties face drought possibilities

Current estimates for water allocation to the Klamath Project for 2020 are significantly lower than that of the 2019 level of 325,000 acre feet, according to Klamath County Commissioner Donnie Boyd.

The Snow Water Equivalent for the Klamath Basin as of Monday is 73% of normal and precipitation is 67% of normal, according to Oregon Water Resources Department.

The official number of acre feet allocation of water is usually not released to the public by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office until March, or even April 1.

“We are going to be in a drought situation,” Boyd said.

“This is going to be an extremely tight water year,” he added.

Any current water allocation estimates circulating are not firm, according to Laura Williams, public affairs specialist for Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Basin Area Office. She also said that official numbers will be based on the March NRCS forecast.

“That’s the number that we go by,” Williams said. “It’s really too early to make any predictions before that date and we’re not really firm on it until we get the April NRCS forecast.

“What we do is look at the inflow forecast for Upper Klamath Lake and make our calculations from there,” she added.

“It’s been a very dry Winter and we’re hoping for a ‘Miracle March’ like we’ve had in past years and we’re going to deal with what happens as best we can.”

“It is sobering,” Williams added. “To look at the amount of water that’s fallen from the sky this year and the weather predictions … it’s alarming.”

Boyd said the Board of Klamath County commissioners has not voted regarding bringing in Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to declare a drought, but he anticipates the commission will highly consider it.

“The best that we can do is ask the governor to declare the drought, which will put us into opportunities to receive federal funding, and then I think we can work with the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies to try to get drought relief money,” Boyd said.

“It’s going to be hard and we’re going to have to be advocating for everything we can, Upper Basin and lower Basin to try to help get our producers through it,” he added.

“All the water comes through the Upper Basin so I would assume that the Upper Basin is going to be extremely short, too. There’s no extra water anywhere in the Klamath Basin – Upper Basin or lower Basin.”

Paul Simmons, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, said the association met on Monday and plans to notify growers within the week of a public meeting regarding the water year.

Simmons said he hopes to hold a meeting with as many growers as possible as early as sometime next week.

“It’s not a good place at all,” Simmons said. “The months or so ahead of us – we’ll see what happens with the precipitation. That will be the ultimate, major variable.

“It’s pretty warm and clear today and that’s not good,” he added.

Brad Kirby, manager of Tulelake Irrigation District, is equally concerned about water shortages in TID and throughout the Klamath Project.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s going to be impacts across the (Klamath) Project,” he said.

Kirby says he’s been concerned about the potential for a 2020 drought in Klamath County since Oct. 1, 2019.

He knew that more than likely, unless on- and off-Project growers got an above average winter from the November 2019 through January 2020 time frame, that growers would be facing a “pretty dire situation.”

One of the factors that could also impact the drought is the re-consultation of a new biological opinion underway and litigation involving the 2018 Biological Opinion.

The case is the Yurok Tribe and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association vs. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Services. The Yurok Tribe and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association object to the data provided in the 2018 Biological Opinion, according to a previous H&N story. Klamath Water Users Association is a defendant in the case.

A hearing is planned for 2 p.m. this Friday at the U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco. Judge William Orrick will preside over the case, which has had its court date and time moved twice.

Representatives of growers are anticipated to be in attendance at the case, according to Kirby.

“No matter what, we’re still going to be in dire straits here across the Klamath Project,” Kirby said. “I’d say that would go for any scenario that would result from any of the paths that we’re currently on.”

Kirby was hoping some “hold-over” winter weather in January would have continued.

“I was hoping, just crossing my fingers that that would just continue into the springtime, but about two or so weeks ago, that just kind of went away,” Kirby said.

Clear, warmer days have mostly replaced precipitation since.

“That doesn’t help our snow pack build at all when it’s just nothing coming,” Kirby said.

“There is a drought scenario even if we get what we refer to often as a ‘Miracle March.”

That’s a scenario where the Project receives an unprecedented amount of moisture for this time of year.

While possible, Kirby said growers can’t count on this happening.

“As it sits right now, we’re trying to plan for the worst, and get the necessary information out to our patrons and water users trying to figure out how to get all irrigators throughout the entire Project the information necessary, in order for everybody to understand what the situation is that we’re looking at this year and how we’re trying to mitigate … to try and minimize the impacts as best as we possibly can,” Kirby said.

“We will do everything in our power to stretch whatever allocation we do get,” Kirby added.

“We’re going to get what we get as far as the allocation goes, and then we’re going to do everything we can to conserve and make every drop count operationally, and that’s basically what we can do.”

Kirby said TID officials have talked with counties on both sides of the state line about what it would take to have a drought declared in Modoc County.



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