Capital Press File
The suspense is killing farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin.
Two weeks after a highly anticipated federal court hearing in San Francisco, local producers still do not know when or how much water they will have available for this year’s irrigation season.
Without a concrete start date or allocation, irrigators say they are in limbo trying to figure out what they can and cannot grow and how they will adjust heading into what is expected to be a severe summer drought.
“I would say it is agonizing,” said Ty Kliewer, a member of the Klamath Irrigation District Board of Directors. “Particularly this late into the spring, you don’t know what to plant. You don’t know if you should plant a dryland crop, or something you can irrigate ... A lot of guys with row crops are really up in the air.”
Kliewer, who raises beef cattle and organic hay south of Klamath Falls, said a big part of his business is selling commercial breeding bulls, but with all the uncertainty that market has gone stagnant.
“Everyone is coming up with their disaster plan right now,” he said. “You’ve got to plan for the worst, and then everything is a nice surprise for later, hopefully.”
The water situation is especially dire in southern Oregon. While the northern part of the state is experiencing near or above normal snowpack, the Klamath Basin has just 43 percent of its usual snow for the year. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a drought emergency for Klamath County on March 13, with stream flows expected to range between 24 and 58 percent of normal through September.
To complicate matters further, the Bureau of Reclamation has yet to announce a start date for irrigation season due to a court injunction aimed at protecting threatened coho salmon from a deadly parasite in the Klamath River.
The parasite, known as C. shasta, infects freshwater worms which, in turn, release spores into the river that infect fish on contact. A coalition of groups and tribes secured an injunction in 2017 that requires the Bureau of Reclamation to keep 50,000 acre-feet of stored water to flush away C. shasta spores until 80 percent of juvenile salmon reach the ocean.
Plaintiffs include the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes, along with Klamath Riverkeeper, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources. They allege that mismanagement of the Klamath River below four major dams led to an outbreak of C. shasta in more than 90 percent of sampled fish in 2015, and nearly that many in 2014.
Earlier this year, the Klamath Water Users Association, KID, Sunnyside Irrigation District, Klamath Drainage District, Pine Grove Irrigation District and California farmer Ben Duval filed to stay the injunction, and allow irrigation to begin. The Bureau of Reclamation had proposed starting the season as early as April 19.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick held a hearing on the motion April 11. On April 19, he requested additional information from the parties by no later than Thursday, April 26. In his ruling, Judge Orrick stated he is “inclined to issue an indicative ruling that modification of the injunction is necessary.”
Scott White, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said it is encouraging to see the court take a closer look at the science used to order the injunction in the first place. However, he added the extension of time for a final decision is “not desirable.”
“There are literally fields blowing away with the wind while we wait for water,” White said.
For Paul Crawford, the delay could end up greatly diminishing his alfalfa crop and 40 acres of winter wheat at his farm near Malin, Ore.
“Having good soil moisture is key,” Crawford explained. “As of this day, we’re in good shape. But in two weeks, depending on temperatures, we may be drawing on that moisture.”
Crawford said he needs to start irrigating his wheat crop before May 1, or it will not last until harvest.
Unless the judge rules in the irrigators’ favor, Crawford said it may bankrupt him and his family before he has a chance to get started. The 29-year-old farmer has already entertained thoughts of selling land, rather than try to expand.
“That was a pretty devastating thought process,” he said.
Justin Grant, 28, also raises mostly alfalfa, grass hay and some cattle near Midland, Ore., in southern Klamath County. He said he, too, worries about being forced out of business early.
“It’s very stressful,” Grant said.
Grant figures he spends 60-70 percent of his budget between April and early June, but without a start date or water allocation, all basin farmers can do is throw a Hail Mary or possibly miss out on their opportunity.
“You have to stretch your neck out there,” he said. “All the bills and everything are going to stack up and you don’t know if you’re going to be able to pay it off.”
A spokesman for the Oregon Water Resources Department said the agency approved 38 drought permits covering 46 wells and 20,434 acres during the last drought year of 2015. Officials expect to see a similar number of requests in 2018.