Associated Press

Another tough summer could be shaping up for salmon and farmers in the Klamath Basin of Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Klamath County commissioners in Klamath Falls, Ore., declared a drought Tuesday, the first step toward state and federal drought declarations that would trigger aid programs and allow farmers to pump emergency wells for irrigation.

On the California end of the basin, Humboldt County and the Hoopa Valley Tribe are asking state and federal officials to devote more water to salmon in the Trinity River -- the biggest Klamath River tributary -- rather than divert it to farms in California's Central Valley.

With a record return of more some 380,000 salmon predicted for the Klamath Basin, three times more than recorded numbers, and snow packs running below normal, biologists are concerned conditions could be shaping up for a repeat of 2002, when tens of thousands of adult salmon died before they could spawn in the Klamath River.

"The only cold water source that exists is Trinity River water stored in the reservoir," said Mike Orcutt, fisheries director for the Hoopa Tribe. "We feel clearly that we have a legal entitlement to the water. If necessary, we want to be able to do something, rather than collect carcasses, which seemed to be the only option in 2002."

Straddling the Oregon-California border, the Klamath Basin regularly has trouble meeting the water demands of the 11,400 farms on a federal irrigation project at the top of the basin, and salmon in the river. The federal government shut off most water to the farms in 2001 to protect threatened coho salmon. After a summer of bitter protests and political battles, the Bush administration restored irrigation to the farms in 2002, only to see tens of thousands of adult salmon die of gill rot diseases that spread rapidly between fish crowded into pools of warm water.

The two events persuaded many farmers, tribes, conservation groups and salmon fishermen to overcome their longstanding differences and agree to a water-sharing plan that is linked to removing four small hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River to help salmon. But political battles have blocked enabling legislation in Congress.

"I have a constant stream of irrigators in my office trying to figure out what they are going to do this year," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. "Do they plant, or try to move outside the project where they can find water somewhere else and grow crops? The way we are set up now, I can't tell them how much water they will get from the Klamath Project in 2012 until October.

"That's just one more reason everybody sat down and worked out a settlement agreement. A year like this, maybe there would be less water, but boy, there is value in knowing up front what you've got to work with."

Just a week ago, the snowpack was 61 percent of normal. That jumped to 84 percent in recent days with new storms. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has warned farmers with junior water rights that they may not get water this year, but a final plan won't be worked out until next month.

Since 1963, half the water in the Trinity's reservoir and more has been pumped over the mountain to irrigate farms in the Central Valley, contributing to degradation of salmon habitat in the basin.

A federal plan to restore the Trinity went into effect in 2004, a half century after it was first approved by Congress. It guarantees funding for habitat restoration and minimum flows for fish, but the Hoopa Tribe and Humboldt County contend that a 1959 contract for an extra 50,000 acre feet of water has never been fulfilled, and may have been absorbed into water commitments for the Sacramento Delta.

"We are acutely aware that in 2002, when the fish kill occurred, a good number of those fish were destined for the Trinity," said Orcutt. "We want that (extra water) to be in our tool chest this year because of the record predicted (salmon) run size."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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