Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Why Willamette Valley farmers should watch Klamath Falls' water rights fight
In this photo provided by The Nature Conservancy, Waters of Upper Klamath Lake near Chiloquin, Ore., flow onto former farmland Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, as part of a Nature Conservancy project to restore marshes on the Williamson River Delta. The marshes will serve as refuges for larval shortnosed suckers and Lost River Suckers, which have become endangered species due to loss of habitat to farming. (AP Photo/The Nature Conservancy, Rick McEwan)
Written by Anna Staver, Statesman Journal
Tom Mallums is a rancher and Klamath County Commissioner in the upper basin and until recently he didn’t worry about the groundwater he used to irrigate his alfalfa, grain and grasses.
“All of our crops are at risk now,” Mallums said. “So, we might lose all of our crops.”
Mallum’s concern comes from a settlement between Oregon and the Klamath tribes that changes how the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) regulates water usage in the region.
You see, not all water rights are equal. The older the claim date on surface water, the more senior the right. That means younger or junior claimants can see their water turned off if a senior water user says it’s affecting their supply.
That troubles Mallum because the tribes hold the most senior water rights in the basin, but what keeps him up at night is a computer model generated by OWRD that looks at how groundwater users affect surface water users.
The agency identified 130 wells (including Mallum’s) that could interfere with surface water sources, meaning he and other farmers could lose both sources of water this summer.
“You virtually cannot prove there isn’t interference because of the way they did the modeling,” Mallum said. “I am considered guilty unless I prove myself innocent and I cannot prove myself innocent.”
So, why did I tell you a story about a farmer who lives four hours away?
Two reasons: The first is Gov. John Kitzhaber is scheduled to hold a ceremonial signing today for the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement.
The second reason comes from Mallum, who said, “This is, in my opinion, a blueprint to shut down wells whenever and wherever they want ... This is not just a Klamath Basin issue. This is a state issue. This is a national issue.”
A computer model helps regulate water in Deschutes County, and a study is underway for the Willamette Basin, OWRD senior policy coordinator Raquel Rancier said.
However, she emphasized that computer models are one of several tools the agency uses to evaluate a well’s impact.
“We go through and do this whole individual analysis,” Rancier said. “(Computer modeling) is used to understand and plan in the basin. It provides us insight into what is going on collectively in the basin.”
Klamath Basin streams rely on water from groundwater during the dry, summer months. If too much water is pumped away, it impacts stream flows and water users who hold surface water rights.
Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, understands that, but he said the settlement “simply takes the livelihood from them. In arid eastern Oregon, you can’t grow anything without irrigation water.”
During the 2014 Legislative session, he tried to pass a law banning the use of computer modeling to determine ground and surface water interference. The bill died in committee.
For Whitsett, that means the OWRD can do the same thing to any watershed in Oregon.
“We will have major, major water problems here in the Willamette Valley in the next 30 years because we are not building any new dams,” said Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas. “I will tell you that will be the number one issue in terms of economic development. There just plain isn’t enough water.”
He’s watching how the water rights fight resolves itself in the upper basin because he thinks it will serve as a road map for state behavior in future water fights.
For Mallum, he thinks the settlement — if it holds — will put an end to irrigation in the upper basin in five years.
“This is how we made our living since 1978,” Mallum said. “If this does not get reversed somehow, it could be used anywhere in the state of Oregon to shut down ground water ... This will happen to you also.”
astaver@StatesmanJournal .com, (503) 399-6610 or on Twitter @AnnaStaver
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Page Updated: Sunday May 11, 2014 02:39 AM Pacific
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