Klamath set for another dry year
'We're not going to have enough surface water to take care of everyone,' leader says
By TIM HEARDEN
Irrigators in the Klamath Basin straddling the Oregon-California state line are preparing for what may be the second water shortage in three seasons.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sent letters recently to more than a dozen area water districts informing them that they likely won't get their full allotments for the upcoming irrigation season, which begins in April.
Prospects have improved with ample rain and snow during the past couple of weeks. But unless it keeps raining and snowing, landowners may get little more than half their normal supply, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.
"Conditions have improved significantly in the last 15 days, but we're still at a point where we're going to be short," Addington said. "We're not going to have enough surface water to take care of everyone.
"I think two weeks ago we were looking at under half of what we would need," he said. "Today those conditions have improved to certainly more than half of what we need, but we're not in a position to say 75 or 80 percent."
Bureau spokesman Kevin Moore said it'll be early next month before the agency can develop an operations plan. Reclamation is waiting for the Natural Resources Conservation Service's updated forecast of spring flows into Upper Klamath Lake, he said.
"Right now we're at 89 percent of snowpack, and that's extremely good to have," Moore said. "The lake is much fuller than it was in 2010 when we had our last rough water year, but it still all depends on what that forecast holds."
Drought conditions throughout the West two years ago deprived farmers and ranchers in the basin of about two-thirds of their normal surface water, Addington said. Growers made do by pumping groundwater with the help of grant funds, he said.
Klamath County commissioners in Klamath Falls, Ore., declared a drought March 20, the first step toward state and federal declarations that would trigger aid programs and allow farmers to again tap into emergency wells.
"That's tricky; it's not something we can do or want to do this often because it has an impact on the aquifer," he said. "Groundwater in Oregon is heavily regulated. We don't think we can pump the same quantities of groundwater this year as 2010."
Water users in the basin get their supplies on a priority basis, with the lowest priority given to such entities as schools and parks, Addington said. The Bureau of Reclamation must keep enough water for imperiled suckers in the lake and salmon in the Klamath River.
The basin drew national attention in 2001 when biological opinions in favor of preserving the fish combined with dry conditions to prompt Reclamation to decree that no water would be available for farms.
The crisis led to talks that produced a set of agreements to remove four dams from the Klamath River and undertake vast fisheries improvements in the basin. The dam-removal proposal is being considered in Congress.
Klamath Water Users Association: http://kwua.org/