KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is taking a fresh look at how it manages water supplies for agriculture and native fish in the Klamath Basin.
Officials announced a $1.2 million "new science initiative" for the Klamath Project, which serves more than 230,000 acres of irrigated farmland along the Oregon-California border. This comes after a joint visit by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and USBR Commissioner Brenda Burman on July 9 to meet with local irrigators, tribes and community members.
Among the projects, the bureau promises to update a 20-year-old assessment of streamflows in the lower Klamath River for coho salmon and re-evaluate how water levels in Upper Klamath Lake are affecting the survival of endangered sucker fish.
Farmers in the Klamath Project have long argued that flawed or outdated science is chipping away at the amount of water they receive each year to irrigate crops.
Mark Johnson, deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said producers historically used more than 400,000 acre-feet of water annually in the Klamath Project. In the bureau's 2013 management plan, it capped the allotment at 390,000 acre-feet to account for fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The bureau issued a three-year interim plan in 2019 that further reduced the maximum allowance to 350,000 acre-feet, with 40,000 acre-feet reserved for "flushing flows" to wash away a salmon-killing parasite known as C. shasta in the lower Klamath River that thrives in slow-moving, warm water.
Meanwhile, Johnson said, water levels in Upper Klamath Lake cannot drop below 4,138 feet above sea level before irrigation is shut off to the Klamath Project's A Canal. The lake fills at 4,143 feet.
Despite leaving more water in-stream, Johnson said it has not had a measurable impact boosting fish populations.
"More water doesn't equal more fish," Johnson said. "If we show there isn't a correlation there, maybe we can try new things and just have more leniency on some of the water years."
The visit by Bernhardt and Burman was spurred by a rally May 29 that drew thousands and trucks in a convoy through Klamath Falls to raise awareness of the basin's longstanding water challenges. This year has been especially painful, as extreme drought has drastically reduced water supplies across the board.
Burman said officials heard from communities about the best path forward, and the $1.2 million investment "will improve our understanding of natural stream flows and the relationship between project operations and aquatic ecosystems in the Klamath Basin."
Republican Reps. Greg Walden, of Oregon, and Doug LaMalfa, of California, both attended the "Shut Down and Fed Up" rally and applauded the government's response.
"This new funding will support science-based initiatives that will help get us closer to finding a solution for the Basin that benefits the farmers, fish and tribes," Walden said. "I look forward to continuing to work with Secretary Bernhardt and the Trump administration on finding a solution to the decades-old Klamath Basin water crisis."
Bob Gasser, who co-owns a fertilizer business in Merrill, Ore., and helped to organize the tractor rally, said he has been impressed with how fast everything has happened over the last two months.
After going down the wrong path for 20 years, Gasser said he is optimistic this initiative will finally lead to some major changes that will benefit everyone, from farms to fish to tribes.
"We've been used to being kicked around for years," Gasser said. "It looks like we're going to have a chance to get some improvement here."