Craig Reed/For the Capital Press
By CRAIG REED
For the Capital Press
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Klamath County hay growers are anticipating another water crisis.
As of Feb. 14, accumulated snow and water levels were at 28 percent of average for the area. There have been a couple winter storms since then, but it would take constant precipitation through March and into April to bring those levels up significantly.
No matter what Mother Nature brings over the next couple of months, hay growers are concerned.
“What I’m hearing is there is a chance the headgates to the irrigation systems might not be opened this year,” said Jason Flowers, who grows a variety of hay crops in the lower Klamath Lake area. “That would be the worst case scenario. We’ll just hope for the best.”
Lynn Long, another lower Klamath Lake farmer, said the report out of a Feb. 27 briefing by the Bureau of Reclamation was not good. The bureau provides water to agriculture in the Klamath Basin Project.
“The word was that there would be a late start to water deliveries, or more than likely, no deliveries at all, at least to the district (Klamath Drainage District) I farm in,” Long said. “We’ve been shut off (from water) since last September.”
Tom Mallams, a hay grower in the Beatty, Ore., area, said even if there was sufficient water, he would expect the Bureau of Reclamation or the Klamath tribes who have priority water rights to call for a shutoff of water for farm and ranch irrigation.
He explained that last year, when there was well above an average amount of snow in the Cascade Mountains and rivers and creeks were overflowing, there was a call for a shutoff of irrigation water.
“It matters zero how much snow we have because they still have the ability to make a call and shut us off,” Mallams said. “The tribe is in the driver’s seat and I expect a tribal call this year. How much production we get will depend on when they make a call.”
Mallams said if a call is made, farmers can file a judicial review and if it is accepted, irrigation can continue. But he explained the review is only a temporary option because then the grower must follow through in court and time and money are needed to explain the case.
David King, a hay grower in the Malin, Ore., area, described the situation as “a political drought.”
“If we didn’t have to worry about the Endangered Species Act we wouldn’t have a problem,” he said. That act prioritizes water for the sucker fish and salmon in the area.
Nick Moxley, who farms in the Bonanza, Ore., area, said the water level “is not even close to normal,” but a decent carryover in Clear Lake and Gerber reservoirs from last year’s above average precipitation should be enough to get farmers in that area through the year. He added it will then be up to Mother Nature to replenish the system for 2019.
Some of the farmers are already comparing this year to the devastating drought year of 2001. But those farmers are saying it is better to be forewarned about the water situation, as is the case this year, rather than being blindsided by it, as happened in 2001.
Ty Kliewer, who farms near Midland, Ore., and who is president of the Klamath Irrigation District board, said he plans to make some changes, planting fescue and brome, whose roots will go deeper to find subsurface water.
“You have to change to increase your production with less water,” he said.
Kliewer said the combination of a water shortage and the commodity markets being relatively poor the last couple of years will make it tough on producers.
“People can be competent operators, but throw the water problem and the loss of production on top of a weakened economic state that is no fault of their own and it can be very gloomy looking,” he said.
King, who is president of the Klamath Basin Hay Growers Association, said he believes most farmers will survive the year if there is a water shortage, “but it is not going to be easy. “
He added there’ll be a domino negative impact down to the area’s agri-businesses and to the communities and their businesses.
Long expects there’ll be some bankruptcies if there is a water shortage. He said lenders will be nervous about making agricultural loans if limited or no water deliveries are expected.
“I believe the circumstances that were described to the growers today (Feb. 27) are very bad,” Long said. “The implications of the Endangered Species Act and Native American tribal lawsuits don’t leave any water available for other purposes. American farmers and ranchers are creative, tough people, but the deck is stacked against us this year. It’s going to be exceedingly difficult without some financial aid from the government. If the laws of the land require water be taken from us, then there should be compensation. It’s very simple.
“I’m fearful of some failures, not just farms, but agri-businesses and businesses in town,” he added. “They’re all going to feel it.”
Mallams said it is frustrating that it has been 17 years since the major water crisis in 2001 and yet nothing has been solved.
“What has been worked out so far hasn’t worked,” he said. “It is sad we haven’t come up with a solution that is viable for all.
“For me, I continue to advocate for a balanced water settlement, but at the same time, the Klamath Adjudication has to be challenged,” he said. “As it stands now, it will destroy agriculture in the entire Klamath Basin.”