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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
 

KLAMATH BASIN WATER MANAGEMENT
for AgLifeNW Magazine, August issue

By Doug Whitsett, President, Water for Life,Inc.7/19/04

Doug Whitsett is president of Water for Life, an organization formed in 1990 by farmers and ranchers in Oregon's Klamath Basin to represent agricultural water users' concerns in legislative, legal and agency proceedings. He is also the Republican candidate for state Senate from District 28

They say that the shortage of water in Eastern Oregon is man caused, and they are right. However, the shortage is not being caused by cattlemen, dairymen, and farmers as they suggest; rather, it is being caused by the management errors of our own government. Let us count the ways that our most precious natural resource continues to be wasted through mismanagement.

Throughout Eastern Oregon water stored for irrigation purposes continues to be reallocated for the perceived benefit of fish listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The benefits of these reallocations of irrigation water are often not measurable either in habitat or species recovery. For example, water stored in Oregonís Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation continues to be withheld from Klamath Project farmers in order to maintain higher lake levels for the perceived benefit of the endangered sucker fish. This continues to happen in spite of repeated statements by the National Academy of Sciences that these elevated lake levels do not benefit the suckers. In addition, water stored for irrigation in Upper Klamath Lake continues to be reallocated to enhance in-stream flow in the Klamath River for the perceived benefit of the threatened Coho salmon. Once again, this continues to happen in spite of repeated statements by the National Academy of Sciences that these seasonal elevated river flows cannot help the Coho, and if fact may cause them measurable harm.

They tell us that wetland restoration is essential to improve habitat, water quality, and water storage capacity. In the Upper Klamath Basin more than 90,000 acres of verdant productive fields that were previously reclaimed from swampland have been "restoredí to wetlands. No empirical evidence is available to show that this restored habitat has measurably increased the numbers of sucker fish. No empirical evidence documents any measurable improvement in Upper Klamath Lake water quality. However, what is measurable is the 2.75 to 4.00 feet of annual evapo-transpiration (ET) from the surface of these restored wetlands. This wetland ET exceeds the expected ET from irrigated pasture by at least 1.5 feet per year. Restore wetlands are currently wasting as much as 150,000 acre feet of water each year. These losses, roughly equivalent to half the amount of water used for irrigation by the entire Klamath Project, are resulting in measurable reductions of in-stream flows in the tributaries of Upper Klamath Lake and in the Klamath River. What is also measurable is the loss of between $60 and $90 million in annual beef production that was derived from this verdant highly productive pasture land acreage prior to its "restoration" to wetlands. In fact, no measurable water quality improvement in Upper Klamath Lake has resulted from the removal of cattle from some of the most productive pastures on earth!

More than a century of fire suppression has resulted in the growth of a vast juniper forest in Eastern Oregon. Natural Resources Conservation Service data estimates that each mature juniper tree uses from 25 to 50 gallons of water per day during the growing season. They further estimate an average of 200 trees per acre of juniper forest. Using a conservative median of 35 gallons per tree per day and a growing season of 150 days, the water "use" is about 1 million gallons per acre, or about 3 acre feet per acre of forest.

(35 gal. per tree X 200 trees per acre X 150 days growing season=1,050,000 gallons of water per acre.)

More than 300,000 acres of juniper encroachment now exists in the Upper Klamath Basin. Arguably, this vast juniper encroachment is consuming about as much water annually as flows out of the basin at Keno.

Rather than address these gross management errors that cause our water shortage, our government has only addressed symptoms of the problem by focusing on "water banks" and ground water extraction to substitute for the loss of surface flows.

Attempting to conserve water by water banking in the Klamath irrigation project that is more than 90% efficient is oxymoronic at best. Removing pieces of the dynamic working project creates inefficiencies in other parts of the project that arguably wastes more water than the water bank is purported to save. In spite of clear evidence that the water bank does not produce significant water for in stream flow, we continue to be required to idle ever more acreage of productive project farmland to "satisfy" this fictitious requirement for in stream flow.

Because the water bank does not produce the anticipated increase in stream flows, our ground water aquifers are being tapped to supplement them. The immediate response is to restore in-stream flows. Unfortunately, the temporal response is unacceptable long term depletion of the aquifer resource. The cost of pumping water for irrigation increases as the aquifer water levels decline. These productive lands will also be idled when the cost of pumping exceeds the economic benefits of irrigation.

Perpetuation of these failed government management practices will certainly destroy our agricultural communities. To resolve these problems we must stop denying the real causes and focus on appropriate management of our water and revenue resources. If we, as a government, intend to continue to allocate more water for in-stream flows, then we must direct our revenue to correcting the issues that are actually causing the in-stream flow reductions. As previously stated, the primary issues are scientifically unsupportable demands for water for the alleged benefit of endangered and threatened fish species, scientifically unsupportable expansion of wetland restoration, and failure to recognize and mitigate the extensive juniper encroachment. These genuine issues can only be resolved when we stop denying and perpetuating our failed management policies by blaming agriculture.

Alternatively, we must direct our revenue to construction of additional off stream deep water storage that will actually address the problems we have created. This could easily be accomplished without altering the revenue stream into the Upper Klamath Basin by placing a five year moratorium on minimum Upper Klamath Lake levels and on minimum Klamath River flows at Irongate. According to the National Academy of Sciences reports, such a moratorium would have no detrimental affect on threatened or endangered fish species. By simply using the surface water stored for irrigation for irrigating crops, and by diverting the revenue currently spent on water banking, ground water substitution, studies, and regulation toward capitol expenditures, deep water storage at Long Lake could be paid for and largely constructed within those five years.

We must direct our efforts and available revenue toward the actual man made causes of our water shortage rather than wasting our efforts and available revenue on addressing symptoms of that shortage.

 

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