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County questions water use

Commissioners object to aquifer irrigation in a good water year

Ty Beaver, Herald and News July 20, 2006

Farmers and ranchers are using groundwater wells for irrigation, and Klamath County officials are worried the use will deplete resources in an otherwise good water year. 

The Basin has a chance to recharge its aquifers this year, county commissioners said, and they questioned the management of the region’s water resources. 

The region is 3 inches above normal for precipitation since last October, but water levels at Upper Klamath Lake were below normal in June. 

Because of the lake level, the Bureau of Reclamation restricted the use of surface water to 37 irrigators, who are using groundwater instead. 

Officials from the Bureau of Reclamation didn’t return calls for comment. But Barry Norris of the Oregon Water Resources Department told commissioners at a meeting Tuesday that surface water must be restricted to maintain Klamath River flows mandated by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Endangered Species Act. 

Commissioners John Elliott and Bill Brown said they couldn’t understand why the wells were being used when three times more water this year than last year was being sent down the river. It is a plus year for precipitation, and the opportunity should be taken to recharge the aquifer as much as possible, they said. 

It begs credibility,” Elliott said. 

A good precipitation year doesn’t relieve the Bureau of Reclamation of its obligation to the river, Norris said. Flow levels must be maintained for endangered coho salmon and other fish species. 

Because the Bureau restricted surface water to the 37 irrigators, those irrigators can use supplemental rights to pump ground water for irrigation, Norris said, adding that the 37 were selected because use of their wells would have the least impact. 

Elliott also said he is concerned landowners could abuse the situation. Selling water is more profitable than leasing land, he said, and questioned whether irrigators were using more water than permitted and then selling it.

Norris said the state wasn’t aware of any irrigator selling pumped groundwater. Irrigators are required to have meters on their pumps, and they are checked. 

“We haven’t found anybody out of their duty yet,” he said. 

Worries that the aquifer is slowly being depleted still concerned the commissioners. 

Elliott said Klamath Falls City Manager Jeff Ball told him there were no trace radioactive elements in any groundwater being pumped. That is a sign that the water is at least 60 years old and was in the ground before nuclear tests in Nevada, he said. 

Brown said the state should be more careful with its water resources, and the aquifer should be beyond the reach of any commitment to river flows. The county must protect its agriculture, and the state should involve the county in any future water decisions, he said. 

“This could have been a year we could recharge and we’re pumping,” he said.



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