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Water agency seeks drought declaration
Redding Record Searchlight - 1/11/05
By Alex Breitler, staff writer
 
TULELAKE -- It may be a winter to remember for most of California, but in the semiarid Klamath Basin they're already tossing around the "D" word.

Drought.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which channels water to farms straddling the California-Oregon border, has asked Klamath County leaders to seek a 2005 drought declaration from the governor of Oregon.

That would allow officials to pump more well water for the region's farms, many of which were left dry in 2001 to protect dwindling fish species in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River.

Declaring drought is nothing new here in the four years since the water shutoff, which was followed by a huge fish kill one year later on the lower Klamath River.

But this year, meting out fair amounts of water may be even more difficult than usual.

The bureau is required to set aside an annual "water bank," which this year must be the largest yet. About 100,000 acre-feet of water -- almost one-third of the farmers' annual allocations -- must be reserved for coho salmon downstream.

That's done by paying farmers to voluntarily idle their land or draw their water from the ground rather than the surface.

But with this year's water bank so big, emergency groundwater pumping will be needed to comply, said Rae Olsen, a spokeswoman for the bureau in Klamath Falls, Ore. The water bank is required under a biological opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It'll be very difficult to achieve" without more pumping, Olsen said.

What's more, while snow has buried California's Sierra Nevada range, the southern Cascades that drain into the Klamath Basin had just 66 percent of the average snowpack by late last week, Olsen said. However, snow could still fall into late spring and the bureau usually doesn't announce how much water farmers will get until early April.

Some feel the extra groundwater pumping isn't a solution. One farmer has called the tactic a "Band-Aid on a gunshot wound," while another said pumping doesn't seem to be harming the underground water supply.

"It's been recovering beautifully," said farmer Monte Seus of Tulelake, who participates in the water bank program for his mint, horseradish and onion fields, among other crops. "I think people are finally realizing that we're not going to damage the aquifer."

Dwight Russell of the California Department of Water Resources in Red Bluff said experts are studying the basin's groundwater monthly.

"It's not bad to use groundwater," he said. "We really don't know what the cap of that upper basin is until we test it. Part of this may be very educational in a scientific sense."

But Bob Hunter of the conservation group WaterWatch said groundwater depletion might harm springs that bubble up and contribute to surface water supplies.

"You're really robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski will make the decision whether to declare a drought, Olsen said. A similar declaration was made in February for last summer. #

 

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