Klamath Growers Fear Midseason Water Shutoff

Published online: Jun 06, 2018 Articles, Irrigation Christine Souza
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Source: Ag AlertCalifornia Farm Bureau Federation

Tough decisions about whether to plant crops have faced farmers and ranchers within the Klamath Water Project. They have little guarantee they will receive enough water to finish the season—and continuing legal action could shut off water this summer.

"What's frustrating is the roller coaster; we don't know where we're at from one week to the next," said farmer Scott Seus of Tulelake, Calif. "We're all trying to be optimists. It would be easy to throw your arms up and just walk away, but we all put our boots on every morning and go back to work."

Some relief came June 1, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the project, released water stored in Upper Klamath Lake to farmers to irrigate crops.

Reclamation spokesperson Laura Williams said the bureau forecasts approximately 194,000 acre-feet of water will be available from Upper Klamath Lake from June 1 through the end of the season on Sept. 30, which she said "constitutes 75 percent of the historical average demand for that period."

For the most part, water to irrigators was shut off during May, after a federal judge denied a motion brought by the Klamath Water Users Association and member districts for relief from a 2017 injunction.

The injunction, brought by the Klamath tribes, required the bureau to maintain a reserve of 50,000 acre-feet of stored water through early June, to be released as dilution flows to help prevent a parasitic disease that harms juvenile salmon in the Klamath River.

Williams said the bureau did provide about 17,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation during May, including water borrowed from the utility PacificCorp, released from reservoirs on the eastern side of the project and from Upper Klamath Lake.

Seus said the total of slightly more than 200,000 acre-feet "is short and is not enough for the project to be irrigated."

"There is ground that is going to be dry and there are people that are not going to irrigate," he said, estimating 20,000 acres in the project would be left idle this season due to a lack of water.

In his case, Seus said he will likely fallow some acres and, like others in the basin, divert any available water to crops such as onions and potatoes. Most Klamath Basin farmers, he said, are wrapping up planting.

Potato growers planted late to make sure they had enough water and onion growers planted early. In late May, when water was shut off to irrigators and instead delivered as dilution flows, there was an unusual rainstorm, Seus said, which gave crops desperately needed moisture.

"We had a couple of inches and it flooded in places, so it was pretty unprecedented," he said. "It fell at the same time the bureau said, 'We're going to shut you off,' so it got us through that period."

Tricia Hill, part-owner of a family farming business that includes Gold Dust Potato Processors near Malin, Ore., said the business is still planting potatoes that should have been planted earlier in the season.

"We usually firm up our farm plan in February and this year, because of the water uncertainty, we didn't do that. We simply couldn't," said Hill, whose company grows and contracts with potato growers in California and Oregon. "Several times, we sat down to create a plan A and plan B, but there was so much uncertainty, it made it really challenging."

The company's conversations with potato growers the past few months included confirming acreage and planting locations, and a backup plan for water. If unable to fill potato contracts, Hill said, the business is worried its customers will find new suppliers.

In addition, another lawsuit filed by Klamath tribes late last month could affect water supplies. In the latest suit, filed against the bureau and federal fishery agencies, the tribes argue that conditions in Upper Klamath Lake have led to reduced populations of endangered shortnose and Lost River suckerfish.

The lawsuit alleges the bureau violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act by allowing the lake level to drop below minimum conservation levels for fish.

If the federal judge rules in the tribes' favor, Seus said, irrigation water could be shut off in mid-July.

"Then we've really got an issue," he said. "At that point, there are crops in the ground everywhere."

Hill also expressed concern about a midseason loss of water.

"Our greatest fear is we end up in a situation where there isn't water available and we have crop failures, which could potentially destroy our contractual business," she said. "It's pretty frightening."

Mark Johnson, Klamath Water Users Association deputy director and fisheries biologist, said there's no hard evidence to suggest suckerfish would benefit from the higher lake levels sought in the latest lawsuit.

"We've had good (fish) recruitment in low water years and we've had fish kills in low water years—it's just across the board," Johnson said. "There are many other factors that affect the fish than lake elevation, including non-native species, entrainment issues and a multitude of other factors."

Federal legislation passed in March includes about $10 million in aid for Klamath Basin farmers and tribes.

"There's money to help with land idling and groundwater pumping to encourage water for the basin," Seus said.