Klamath irrigation cut more than half to help fish

By Jeff Barnard
Grants Pass, Oregon (AP) March 2010

Klamath Basin farmers will get some water for crops this year, but far less than they hoped for after protected fish get what they need to survive the drought.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor said last week it hopes to send at least 30 percent of normal irrigation to the 1,300 farms on the Klamath Reclamation Project starting in mid-May – six weeks later than usual. The project serves 200,000 acres straddling the Oregon-California border.

A new plan for protecting threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River made a little more water available for farms, but even this much depends on normal rainfall in coming weeks, Connor said.

He added that he hopes to get irrigation up to 50 percent of normal by spending $5 million to buy water from wells and pay some farmers to leave their fields dry. Farmers will also be eligible for $2 million in federal aid: $1 million on the Oregon side and $1 million on the California side.

The irrigation cutbacks are similar in magnitude to those in 2001, the first time that water needs for fish protected by the Endangered Species Act trumped farms on the Klamath project. But the political tensions this time are much more calm. In 2001, federal agents were called in to guard headgates controlling irrigation waters after people forced them open.

Greg Addington, director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said no one believed the water would be shut off in 2001, but they were expecting it this year and appreciate the work that has gone into offering some water.

“People are not outwardly angry, but there is a lot of anxiousness in the air and frustration,” he said.

The bureau has a system to determine who gets water and who does not in dry years, but it remains to be seen just who will receive it this year, Addington said. The low level would likely be enough to keep some alfalfa and pasture alive, but would rule out planting high-value potatoes and onions unless a farmer has a well, he said.

Though the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement designed to end decades of fighting over water has yet to go into force, it was praised by federal and state authorities for helping to avoid past conflicts. The agreement was signed last month by farmers, Indian tribes, salmon fishermen, conservation groups and government agencies as part of a plan to remove dams from the Klamath River to help salmon.

“Today’s decision represents an appropriate and balanced approach protecting endangered fish species and economic livelihoods – as the basin faces what will be a challenging water year this growing season,” said Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who signed a state drought declaration Wednesday. “It provides the certainty we need as the state begins to work one-on-one with farmers and ranchers on other sources of water.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement, “The relationships developed through the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements have made it possible for us to come together and find a way to get water to basin farmers while honoring our federal conservation requirements and tribal trust responsibilities.”

NOAA Fisheries biologists Irma Lagomarsino and Jim Simondet said the new biological opinion was based on peer-reviewed science laying out how much water is needed by coho in years ranging from wet to dry. Spring flows, when young salmon swim to the ocean, are a little lower than court-ordered flows in force the past four years, but flows are similar later in the year.

The plan improves on past efforts by more closely following natural fluctuations in flows triggered by rainfall, they said.

Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, which did not sign the restoration agreement, said government continues to fail to address the key issue in the Klamath Basin: reducing the overall demand for irrigation.

“The drought years of 2001 and 2002 showed us that if we keep the Klamath irrigation project at its current size, we’ll never be able to recover threatened salmon and wildlife,” he said.