Farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin are in a tough spot.
Agriculture is a $557 million industry in the Klamath Basin, but it requires steady, reliable access to water. Despite a huge federal irrigation project, farmers and ranchers in the basin don’t have that.
The Klamath Basin received just 43 percent of its usual snow last winter. Stream flows are expected to range between 24 and 58 percent of normal through September. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a drought emergency for Klamath County on March 13.
But as of this writing, irrigators still don’t have a water allocation from the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that controls the project.
The Klamath Project is a massive feat of engineering consisting of six dams, 185 miles of canals and 490 miles of lateral ditches. It spans roughly 200,000 acres of farmland, including 18 irrigation districts.
But the available water is tied up to protect endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, where snowmelt is stored, and salmon in the Klamath River.
Oregon follows the “first in time, first in right” water doctrine — the oldest water right gets first dibs, what’s left flows to holders of less senior rights down the line. The Klamath Tribes were granted the most superior rights by treaty in 1864.
The tribes keep water in the lake to protect shortnose and Lost River suckers, which are both culturally significant and federally endangered.
The tribes also filed a lawsuit May 24 against the bureau, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, seeking an injunction forcing the agencies to provide more water in Upper Klamath Lake for the suckers.
They also support the restoration of endangered salmon in the river.
Juvenile salmon heading down river are at risk from C. shasta, a deadly parasite.
Along with a coalition of environmental groups and fishing interests, the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes of northern California 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 — perhaps by June 15.
The federal government is obliged to protect the fish. But it’s because of the federal government that there is farming in the basin.
It built the project and encouraged farmers to settle with the promise the water would be there. After World War I it gave plots to veterans, many whose descendants are still farming today.
As a matter of law, efforts must be made to save the fish. As a matter of right, the culture of the tribes must be preserved.
The basin’s 2,000 irrigators and their families have their culture, too. It does not reach back to time immemorial, but it is the life blood of the basin’s economy.
It seems to us that the government owes something to the irrigators. If the fish are saved but the farmers and ranchers are not, the loss will be incalculable.