By CRAIG REED
For the Capital Press
Ten days ago, rancher Eric Duarte shipped a couple loads of yearlings to a feedlot to ease the pressure on his pastures near Beatty, Ore.
He anticipates there'll be more early shipments of cattle because there isn't water to irrigate and keep the pastures green and growing to feed the animals.
Duarte and other ranchers in the drainage areas north of Klamath Lake are being forced to make decisions about their livestock earlier than normal after they were shut off from their water sources. Properties in the drainages of the Sprague, Williamson, Wood and several other rivers were shut off from irrigating from those waterways a couple weeks ago because the water level in the upper end of the lake had to be maintained to protect fish habitat. The Klamath Tribe called in its water rights to protect traditional fishing grounds.
"There's a total of 105,000 head of cattle involved in this mess," said Duarte, owner of Duarte Livestock. "We're all in the same boat north of the lake. We'll try to manage this deal the best we can, lighten up on our fields as we go along. Get rid of the yearlings and wean some calves early ... in September rather than in October."
Ace Felder, who has 500 yearlings grazing along the Sprague River, said he's already made plans to ship those animals to a feedlot around Aug. 1. Yearlings that are shipped early will probably be 100 to 200 pounds lighter than usual at shipping time, in turn lightening the rancher's income.
Tom Mallams, a Beatty area rancher and a Klamath County commissioner, said he had heard some cattle had already been moved out of the area. He also said some livestock that normally comes into the area from California for pasture were never shipped north this spring.
"Some guys knew there could possibly be a water shortage here so they knew they couldn't afford to haul cattle to Oregon pastures and then 30 days later have to haul them someplace else," Mallams said. "I guess they left them in California or hauled them to other areas that had little better pasture. I don't know where they're going."
Mallams explained that a dam on the Williamson River that backed up water for irrigation was taken out several years ago and a multi-million-dollar pumping station was built.
"The government then said it won't take the water," Mallams said. "We got by for four or five years and now they've turned us off.
"I expect they could be regulating ground water (wells) before the season is over and that's something they said years ago they would never do," he added. "Once again they could change the rules because now they're saying every well in the Klamath Basin is connected to surface water."
The ranchers said buying hay to carry their livestock through the summer would be too expensive, and they can't afford to use their own hay because it'll be needed later for mother cows during the winter.
A hay shortage is expected in the basin, especially if producers south of the lake are cut off early and can't irrigate for third or fourth cuttings.
"We're anticipating a shortage of hay because of drought issues in other areas (California and Nevada) and their need for hay," said David King, a rancher in the Malin, Ore., area and president of the Klamath Basin Hay Growers. "There could be a cutoff (of water) in late August or September for growers in the lower basin."
"We're watching the biology of the upper Klamath Lake and expect it could impact us soon enough," said Luther Horsley of Midland, Ore., south of Klamath Falls. "With conservation and water mitigation programs, hopefully we'll get through it, but maybe not. There's a lot of concerned people, whether in the project or off."
Mallams said the overall water shortage in Klamath County will have "a horrendous financial impact. It's going to affect every business in the entire Klamath Basin."
Duarte said he believes there is enough water in the Klamath Basin for everybody and that all parties should get to a table, negotiate and give a little.
Horsley said ag producers are being conservative with water and not squandering the resource.
"I fully understand the despair and anxiety of those guys in the upper basin," he said. "We went through that in 2001. We had to sell good mother cows in 2001 because we didn't have feed for them. It was painful. Cows want to eat and drink every day. They don't care about politics."