Klamath irrigators vote for water deliveries even if it puts
federal drought funding at risk
Eric Neumann, Jefferson Public Radio 4/5/22
After last year’s drought that saw
protests and threats of breaking into federal water management
facilities, the implications of the recent Klamath Irrigation
District (KID) vote are unclear, but support from irrigators was
widespread last Tuesday.
Out of 377 votes, 319 KID members
voted ‘yes’ to the ballot question: “Pursuant to both our
federal contract obligations and state water rights, do you want
the district to attempt to deliver you water knowing it will
likely complicate federal drought funding?”
“The results of the election really
let the directors know that the sentiments of the patrons of the
district would prefer water over federal funding,” says Gene
Souza, executive director and district manager of the Klamath
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has
not yet announced how much water will be delivered to farmers
this year. 2021 was the first year the federally managed Klamath
Project provided no water to local irrigators in the heavily
farmed Klamath Basin, which spans the Oregon-California border.
But with much of Klamath and
Siskiyou counties in the highest categories of drought, 2022
could be equally dry. Oregon’s Klamath County is experiencing
the fourth driest year to date in the past 128 years, according
to the National Integrated Drought Information System. On the
California side, Siskiyou County is experiencing the second
driest year in that same time period.
To support farmers last year,
federal agencies sent tens of millions of dollars in drought
relief to communities in the Basin, including $15 million from
the USDA and $20 million from the Bureau of Reclamation. But
Souza says that drought funding makes up a fraction of what
would be generated by farmers and which would, in turn,
stimulate the local economy.
“That doesn’t create jobs, that
doesn’t create a sense of pride in getting something
accomplished, that doesn’t help spread that money,” Souza says.
Basin farmers are restricted from
using water stored in Upper Klamath Lake which is maintained to
protect several species of endangered sucker fish that are
culturally important to the Klamath Tribes. Water is also sent
down the Klamath River, for threatened Coho salmon that are
significant culturally and as a food source for California’s
Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes.
But some irrigators like Klamath
Basin farmer Ry Kliewer argue there are conflicts between state
and federal water laws that need to be resolved.
“I think that a lot of people here
are sick and tired of being told by the federal government ‘you
have no water, you have no water, we can tell you what to do and
you’re gonna like it,’” Kliewer says.
enough water for endangered species, Native American tribal
water rights, nearby national wildlife refuges, and agriculture,
it’s unclear whether the KID vote could help or hurt farmers and
ranchers in the Basin. During
a June, 2021 public meeting held in
Klamath Falls, Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz of Oregon warned
residents against taking matters into their own hands to try to
get water from federal facilities for two reasons. “They could
go to jail and two, it’s going to hurt my ability to get money
for the Basin,” Bentz said.
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