Local farmers and ranchers from the Klamath
Basin in Southern Oregon are hitting the road for San
Francisco to witness a pivotal court hearing that may
determine when they can finally start irrigating their crops
It is yet another chapter in the ongoing
dispute to balance water rights for agriculture and
endangered fish along the Klamath River.
Water users are especially nervous now
heading into summer, as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown already
declared a drought emergency in Klamath County on March 13.
Snowpack is just 51 percent of normal across the basin, and
the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service predicts
stream flows between April and September may range anywhere
from just 24 to 58 percent of average.
Or, as Scott White of the Klamath Water Users
Association put it, “This is not a fun time down here.”
“People have just been trying to get by,”
said White, KWUA executive director. “Anxiety is through the
roof in this basin right now.”
Yet the Bureau of Reclamation, which
administers the Klamath Project, still has not been able to
announce a water allocation or irrigation start date for the
season. That’s because the agency is hung up on a previous
court ruling that requires 50,000 acre-feet of stored water
for in-stream flows to wash away a deadly parasite that
attacks coho salmon, known as C. shasta.
The injunction, filed Feb. 8, 2017 in U.S.
District Court in San Francisco, essentially calls for three
types of flows to combat C. shasta. The first is a “flushing
flow” of 6,030 cubic feet per second for 72 hours, which
must be completed every year before the end of April. There
is also a “deep flushing flow,” which is required every
other year but not for 2018.
The last is what’s known as “dilution flows,”
which are contingent on the presence of C. shasta spores in
the river. If water tests higher than five spores per liter,
that triggers the release of 3,000 cubic feet per second for
seven days below Iron Gate Dam to cleanse the stream. If
that doesn’t work, water releases are ramped up to 4,000
cubic feet per second for another seven days.
Dilution flows are no longer needed once 80
percent of the salmon have migrated out to the Pacific
Ocean, but White said that date can be difficult to pin
down, and is making it difficult for water users to plan for
the summer. Releases also cannot interfere with water needed
for endangered sucker fish that inhabit Upper Klamath Lake.
The Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of
Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources,
Klamath Riverkeeper and the Hoopa Valley Tribe sought the
injunction to protect juvenile coho after several years of
deadly C. shasta outbreak.
The KWUA, along with Klamath Irrigation
District, Sunnyside Irrigation District, Ben Duvall Klamath
Drainage District and Pine Grove Irrigation District,
recently filed a motion to stay the court’s injunction. U.S.
District Judge William Orrick will hold a hearing Wednesday,
April 11 to consider the argument.
White said the water users association has
reserved a bus with 45 seats to take farmers and ranchers
down to the hearing in a show of support. It is possible
Judge Orrick may rule from the bench that very day, and
White said he is optimistic about the outcome.
“That’s really all we have to live on, is
hope and faith that the judge will see things our way,” he
The Bureau of Reclamation has proposed an
irrigation start date of April 19 and water allocation of
252,000 acre-feet — roughly 36 percent less than full
allocation for the project.
Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for
the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association,
said they sympathize with basin farmers, but unless
something is done to stop the onslaught of C. shasta, it may
push Klamath salmon to extinction.
“For us, it’s an existential problem,” Spain
said. “We don’t exist as salmon fishermen without salmon.”
The PCFFA represents most of the West Coast
commercial fishing industry. Like farmers, Spain said they
are helping families to put food on the table.
Unfortunately, with an over-allocated river, he said, the
demand for water is turning good people, and valuable
industries, against one another.
“We need that water in the river. Farmers
understandably need it on their crops. And there is not
enough to go around,” Spain said.
The late start to irrigation season is
already a killer for farmers and ranchers struggling to turn
a profit, White said. He hopes this ordeal will demonstrate
these types of issues are best worked out at the local
level, instead of handed down by the court.
“Not only is it expensive, but it’s never an
ideal outcome,” White said.
Anyone interested in taking the bus to San
Francisco can contact the KWUA office at 541-883-6100.