Klamath water crisis grows

Klamath farmers face ‘worrisome’ water situation
By Christine Souza, Assistant Editor
California Farm Bureau Federation,

Farmers in the Klamath Water Project say they’re apprehensive about getting through this year’s growing season. Farmers in the region along the California-Oregon border learned that they would likely only receive 30 percent to 40 percent of their annual water supplies, due to below-average precipitation and implementation of Endangered Species Act regulations for two protected species.

In early May, about one month later than is typically announced, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its operations plan that identifies minimum flow requirements for the threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River, and minimum elevations that must be met in Upper Klamath Lake to help protect endangered suckerfish.

“We think there could be about 150,000 acre-feet available, which is roughly one-third of what we would normally use from the lake, but it is important to note that it is not a guarantee,” said Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Greg Addington. “It is really still a projection because what they are saying is, ‘We still think it is 150,000 acre-feet, but if inflows taper off or if we violate the lake levels, we have to shut you down.’ As long as we’re meeting these biological opinions, we think there should be 150,000 acre-feet left over.”

As a result of the short supplies, Klamath Water Project farmers have fallowed hundreds of acres. Diversified farmer Marshall Staunton of Staunton Farms in Tulelake has decided to go outside of the Klamath Water Project to lease land that has a secure supply of water.

“What happens (in the Klamath Water Project) if we get a July that gets hotter than normal? All of a sudden we bust the biological opinion on Upper Klamath Lake and they shut the water off for two weeks,” Staunton said. “Then this plan that we’ve got with all of this invested in peppermint, potatoes, onions, alfalfa and grain just gets totally screwed up. There’s a chance we come through this perfect. But we need to meet the biological opinion and everything has to fit. It is a very worrisome summer.”

Staunton said his Tulelake acreage within the Klamath Water Project has been reduced by about half this year.

“Last year, we had 700 acres in Tulelake and this year we have 355 acres,” he said.

To be able to grow the same amount of commodities and to satisfy sales contracts, Staunton has secured farmland in Alturas, which is about one hour from his home base.

“We’re going to end up with acreage fairly close to last year’s, so we’re OK, but we missed the opportunity to grow,” Staunton said.

Because the tentative allocations weren’t announced until May, farmers weren’t able to plant crops that must be in the ground before then.

Securing the Alturas land was a competitive and expensive process, he said, adding that any agricultural property equipped with wells was highly sought after by Klamath Basin farmers who needed a stable water supply and faced having to meet contracts.

Fellow Tulelake farmer Scott Seus also ventured outside of the Klamath Basin to find property that has a more stable water supply.

“Those with contracts and who have to protect those contracts are going to do the extreme and go where they have to go to get water. It is all about reliability. The companies have to be reliable in their contract base—they have to provide a product to their consumers as well,” said Seus, who is traveling 50 miles outside of the Klamath Basin to grow his crops. “We’re going to some pretty extreme lengths to try to make it work.”

While farmers are doing what they can to farm their crops this year, they say they are hopeful that it doesn’t have to be this way for the long term, given the time and energy that they devoted to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement—a dam removal plan described as a comprehensive solution for the region’s water needs.

“We are still 50,000 acres in trouble and that is why this year is just additional evidence of why we have to do something different. It is why we’ve invested the time and effort into this settlement process,” Addington said. “It is still very controversial, but at the end of the day we’ve got to pursue strategies and policies that give us some degree of stability here, where we have none now.”

Stakeholders in the settlement process included irrigators represented by the Klamath Water Users Association, as well as environmentalists, tribes, fishing groups and government agencies. Scott River and Shasta River valley irrigators downstream, who were not at the table during negotiations for the agreement, say they remain concerned about how the removal of the dams will affect their farming operations.

In the short term, efforts are under way to secure additional emergency funding to reduce water demand in the Klamath Project through a land idling program. This is a locally governed, competitive-bidding process that provides some financial assistance to farmers who agree to set aside land this irrigation season. While in Washington, D.C., recently, Farm Bureau representatives met with staff from the offices of Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to advocate for such funding. Farm Bureau said this approach would provide more initial certainty and reduce the need for federal disaster relief expenditures that will likely be proposed later.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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