Oregon water regulators to recoup Klamath
costs, order devices
Oregon’s water regulators plan to recoup the cost of
investigating Klamath Basin irrigation diversions from farmers
while requiring others to install measurement devices.
The actions stem from a court ruling that determined the Oregon
Water Resources Department had unlawfully allowed the federal
government to release water from Upper Klamath Lake for
in-stream purposes that should have gone to the Klamath
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation intended to provide water for
federally protected fish, but a state judge ruled in July that
the agency doesn’t have an established water right to make those
The judge blocked OWRD from allowing water releases unless the
agency determines the Bureau of Reclamation has a “right,
license or permit” to do so.
As a result, OWRD has undertaken investigations to figure out
the amount of water stored in the lake, how much is diverted for
irrigation as well as natural in-flows and out-flows, which is
meant to allow the agency to “take charge” of the reservoir.
To that end, the agency has spent more than $10,000 in its
investigations of the “complex water storage and delivery
system,” and will likely need to spend another $42,000 in staff
time, vehicle miles and lodging expenses, according to OWRD.
During its Aug. 27 meeting, the Oregon Water Resources
Commission — which oversees OWRD — voted 4-2 to provide the
agency with the authority to “seek payment in advance” from the
Klamath Irrigation District to finish its investigations.
While it’s “unlikely” that OWRD will try to recoup the $10,000
it’s spent up until now, the continued investigation is “a large
new workload that requires additional resources to undertake,”
said Racquel Rancier, the agency’s senior policy coordinator.
The $42,000 needed to “carry out the investigation and
associated distribution of water” may still be revised but it’s
the “best estimate at the moment,” she said.
Gene Souza, executive director and manager of the Klamath
Irrigation District, said he believes the Klamath Basin is being
used as a “scapegoat” in this case so that OWRD can require more
water measurement and reporting.
“I feel like they’re using delay tactics and pushing another
agenda, really,” Souza said.
Determining whether the Bureau of Reclamation is infringing on
the irrigation district’s water rights would be a “simple math
problem,” so OWRD’s request to recoup money isn’t relevant to
the question at hand, he said.
Souza said he’s also concerned that OWRD’s authority to recoup
expenses will turn into a “blank check” that will continue to
rack up costs for irrigators, who have foregone roughly $120
million in crop value based on the amount of irrigation water
they’ve been denied in the past two years.
Rancier of OWRD said the irrigation district’s perception is
“unfortunate,” as the agency is trying to comply with the court
order and the request for repayment hasn’t delayed the process.
The agency must account for diversions from “live” stream flows
versus stored water, both from the lake as well as below it, she
“We need to make sure that we are justly distributing water for
all water right holders involved,” Rancier said in an email.
“Unfortunately, the department does not have key inputs into the
‘math’ equation to understand how much stored water (as opposed
to natural flow) the BOR is releasing.”
As part of the investigation, the OWRD expects it will have to
expend staff hours inspecting points of diversion for 30
irrigators around Upper Klamath Lake and 85 points of diversion
for irrigators below Link River Dam below the reservoir.
The agency also expects its employees will have to “follow up
with measuring device orders” and conduct “compliance check and
That’s a concerning development for the Oregon Farm Bureau,
which fears the installation of such devices will be “very
expensive” for the farmers, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice
president of public policy for the group.
“I’d be very surprised if half of them know this is before the
commission or that it’s the department’s long term plan,” she
said. “Why on earth are you not communicating with people that
this is coming?”
Depending on diversion type, devices may cost $500 to $1,000
apiece, but they may also cost in the tens of thousands of
dollars, Cooper said.
Historically, the agency would have had cost share dollars
available to help irrigators with the financial burden but that
money has recently dried up due to plummeting tax revenues
associated with the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
For that reason, the Farm Bureau is urging the OWRD hold off on
hiring staff for the investigation until it can notify and
communicate with affected farmers about its plans.
The agency should also ensure cost share dollars are available
and determine that information from such devices is actually
necessary, according to Farm Bureau.
“Because it’s from a court order, they seem to be washing their
hands of that responsibility,” Cooper said.
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