Farmers on Oregon-California border might get less water than they expect

Farmers on Oregon-California border might get less water than they expect
By Jeff Barnard
The Associated Press

Apr 8, 2015

GRANTS PASS — Farmers on a federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border are slated to get 65 percent of the water they expect in a wet year this growing season due to the lack of mountain snowpack that feeds reservoirs.

The allocation announced Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a little more than last year but represents the fourth straight year of cutbacks due to drought.

Because of the complex network of irrigation districts, reservoirs and contracts on the 300-square-mile Klamath Reclamation District, some farmers will get 100 percent of what they do in a wet year, while others will get zero, said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association. The state is unlikely to authorize more groundwater pumping to supplement surface water supplies, because so much has been pumped in recent years, he added.

“I think it’s going to be a hard year,” he said. “I think people are going to get hurt.”

Dry years have spelled tough times for Klamath farmers since 2001, when the Endangered Species Act forced major irrigation cutbacks to leave water for protected sucker fish and salmon. Leading crops are alfalfa, potatoes, horseradish and pasture for livestock. When irrigation was restored in 2002, tens of thousands of adult salmon died in the lower Klamath River from diseases that spread in low water conditions.

The irrigation shutoffs and fish kill prompted farmers to get together with Indian tribes, conservation groups, salmon fishermen and others to work out agreements to remove dams that block salmon on the Klamath River, restore environmental damage and share water in dry years. But they have languished for years in Congress, blocked by House Republicans.

Brian Person, acting Klamath Project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the allocation took into account minimum amounts mandated for threatened and endangered fish. He added the bureau would do all it could to maximize water use, such as holding back water when rain makes irrigation unnecessary and facilitating transfers of water from low-value crops to higher-value crops.

“We recognize the seriousness of the situation and that there are livelihoods at stake with an allocation like this,” he said.

The allocation means no water at all for local wildlife refuges, except on lands leased to farmers to grow crops, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Matt Baun.

“There will be less food and less habitat,” Baun said. “It will be similar to last year, when thousands of birds died by the middle of summer with avian botulism.”

Jim McCarthy of the conservation group WaterWatch said Fish and Wildlife has a 1905 water right, the same as the irrigation project, and should be using it to put water on marshes, instead of passing it on to farmers leasing refuge land to grow crops. He added that the water-sharing agreements fail to curtail water use enough to meet the continued demand.

Addington said the allocation was more of a cap than a minimum amount of water, because no one knows for sure just how much water will flow into the project’s primary reservoir, Upper Klamath Lake, as the summer wears on.