WaterWatch of Oregon Statement Regarding the 2015 Klamath Project Operations Plan

For Immediate Release
April 8, 2015

WaterWatch of Oregon Statement Regarding the 2015 Klamath Project Operations Plan

Yesterday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the 2015 Klamath Project Operations Plan, setting irrigation season water delivery amounts for agribusiness operations and national wildlife refuges within the massive federal Klamath Project along the Oregon-California line.

Yet again, the Bureau’s plan provides no water for wetlands on Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, setting the refuges’ waterfowl on a path to disaster. Since 2012, tens of thousands of birds on these refuges have died for lack of water as a result of decisions made by the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees both the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With few wetland acres available due to lack of water, large numbers of waterfowl pack together during migration periods, leading to lethal disease outbreaks. Refuge staff estimated that some 20,000 birds perished this way in 2014. Similar conditions on these refuges sparked massive waterfowl die-offs in 2012 and 2013.

Lower Klamath refuge – one of the most important in North America, and the first set aside specifically for waterfowl – currently has water on a fraction of its protected wetlands, and even these are expected to go completely dry by mid-summer. Lack of springtime water and habitat will also reduce the abundance and success of the refuges’ breeding birds.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has 1905 priority date rights to supply Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges with a combined 85,000 acre feet of water (27.7 billion gallons) – enough to provide adequate habitat for migratory and breeding birds during drought years. Yet, the Interior Department has chosen to use this water for commercial potato and alfalfa fields on refuge lands, instead of for wildlife habitat.

The Secretary of the Interior has the authority to end this harmful practice, stop these repeated waterfowl die-offs, and provide more secure water supplies to refuge wetlands. WaterWatch has asked Secretary Jewell to use the refuges’ water rights for refuge purposes, but the Secretary has ignored our requests.

Klamath Agreements Provide No Solution

Some claim that the Klamath water agreements proposed in pending federal legislation will resolve the Klamath Basin’s water woes. These claims are false. This is why WaterWatch, Oregon’s leading advocate for restoring natural river flows and the removal of obsolete dams harmful to salmon and steelhead, opposes this legislation in its current form.

In reality, these agreements would increase the imbalance in the basin’s water budget during drought years. For example, although the agreements would increase flows each year by 9.8 billion gallons in waterways upstream of Upper Klamath Lake, they also greatly increase water diversions from the lake itself during droughts – before that water reaches the Klamath River.

If the agreements had been implemented before this year’s drought, water withdrawals to the Klamath Irrigation Project area would have increased over the withdrawals estimated in the 2015 Klamath Project Operations Plan by 40.2 billion gallons (123,500 acre-feet). In 2014, withdrawals would have increased by 48.7 billion gallons. In 2013, withdrawals would have increased by 32.4 billion gallons. And in the drought of 2010, withdrawals would have increased by 76 billion gallons.

The intensified water imbalances created by the agreements would regularly drop Klamath River flows during drought years below the levels that sparked the infamous 2002 fish kill, placing Klamath salmon and Oregon and California’s salmon-dependent communities at significant risk of another catastrophe.

Supporters claim the agreements’ drought plan will tackle the deal’s fish-killing water imbalances. But this plan lacks minimum flows for fish or any new tools for addressing drought. Instead, the plan creates new preconditions, including significant taxpayer funding burdens, which must be met before allowing a select group to vote on whether to temporarily reduce water allocations to the Klamath Project. This select group inexplicably excludes conservationists, commercial or recreational salmon fishermen, and a number of Klamath Basin tribes.

WaterWatch urges Sens. Wyden and Merkley to – at an absolute minimum – include science-based flow assurances for fish, measurable salmon and steelhead restoration standards and additional water demand reduction in their legislation to reduce the significant risk of another disaster for Klamath salmon runs and Oregon’s coastal fishing communities. These improvements should include some downsizing of the Klamath Project and the voluntary retirement of other water rights throughout the basin.