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May 4, 2004

 

Local editorials

Mining water in the basin

Stop paying Klamath farmers for using wells; find a real solution

Itís called "mining water." Thatís what happens when people pump groundwater from wells faster than nature can replenish it. If people are allowed to mine water for too long, the result can be catastrophic for everyone.

Farmers are mining water now in the Klamath Basin, and the federal government is encouraging the practice by paying them to do it. This is short-sighted at best, recklessly irresponsible at worst, and it needs to stop.

As a short-term fix, irrigating with well water isnít a bad thing. Klamath Basin farmers have used wells to get through drought years for generations.

But when federal fisheries biologists determined that diverting too much water from Klamath Lake was harmful to endangered fish species in the lake and in the Klamath River, they shut off water to the basinís farms. The governmentís response to this crisis was to begin paying farmers to use well water instead of surface water.

And the result of that is that the water table has dropped as much as 20 feet in some places. Neighbors are alleging that new farm wells near their homes have affected their own wells.

The state of Oregon, for its part, issues permits for new wells. It might seem logical that if too much groundwater was being pumped out of the ground, the state would stop issuing permits.

 

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But state officials say they donít have enough reliable data on the effect of new wells to justify a moratorium on drilling.

Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Reclamation plans to pay farmers $1.6 million this summer to continue irrigating their fields with well water.

This is not a long-term solution to the Klamath Basin water problem. The solution is to bring the number of acres irrigated into line with the water available in dry years while providing enough to protect fish species.

The only way to do that is for the federal government to buy out farmers willing to sell their land until the demand for irrigation water equals the supply available during a drought.

The federal government, which promised more water than it could deliver in the first place, should move rapidly to develop such a program. And the state should assemble the evidence it needs to start denying permits for new wells. Maybe that would force some federal action to finally solve this problem.

 

 

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