Basin on the brink (copy)

With record-low inflows coming into Upper Klamath Lake, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation anticipates it will not have anywhere near enough water this summer to meet minimum requirements for endangered fish — let alone enough water to meet irrigation demands for farmers and ranchers.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — If 2020 was a difficult water year for the Klamath Basin, then 2021 is likely to be even more challenging.

With record-low inflows coming into Upper Klamath Lake, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation anticipates it will not have anywhere near enough water this summer to meet minimum requirements for endangered fish — let alone enough water to meet irrigation demands for farmers and ranchers.

Jeff Payne, deputy regional director for the bureau, said the basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California appears to be entering a second consecutive year of extreme drought, exacerbating what was already a critical situation.

“I think everyone in the Klamath Basin felt like they weren’t able to get what they needed last year,” Payne said. “This will be the second year in a row that those conditions are experienced again.”

As of March 1, total precipitation in the Klamath Basin was 75% of average for the water year dating back to October, and snowpack was 87% of normal, according to the latest hydrology report from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

That might not seem too bad, but Payne said Upper Klamath Lake is filling at a disproportionately low rate. Since Oct. 1, cumulative net inflow into the reservoir was 370,000 acre-feet, or about 74% of normal, which is the worst year on record since 1981.

Payne said he is not sure why so little rain and runoff has made its way into the lake, but suspects more water may be soaking into the dry ground rather than draining into streams.

“It is getting intercepted somewhere,” he said. “The sponge is a little dry in the upper basin, it would appear.”

Upper Klamath Lake feeds into the Klamath Project, a federally managed irrigation system that provides water for 230,000 acres of farmland on both sides of the Oregon-California border. Every year, the Bureau of Reclamation allocates water for the project based on the April NRCS hydrology report.

While there is still time for improvement, Payne said irrigators should expect a dramatic reduction in water available from Upper Klamath Lake this season. The bureau currently forecasts 130,000 acre-feet, which is even less than last year’s allocation of 155,000 acre-feet.

The 2020 allocation was the second-lowest on record, and far less than the Klamath Project’s historical demand of 400,000 acre-feet.

Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, a nonprofit group that represents 1,200 family farms and ranches, said the dry conditions pose multiple challenges for irrigation districts and the growers they serve.

“Given the multiple places where water is diverted, and the way water moves through the system, how do you manage what is on the order of one-third of the total needed?” Simmons said. “The plumbing isn’t really designed to work like that.”

Ty Kliewer, a third-generation family farmer in Midland, Ore., and board president for the Klamath Irrigation District, said the year is looking “pretty disastrous” for the region’s agriculture.

“Nobody really knows what to think right now,” Kliewer said. “Our best-case would be to have a really wet spring. But between the hole that we’ve been put in by several entities, including nature, it’s a pretty scary looking situation.”

In addition to the Klamath Project, the Bureau of Reclamation must also manage water to protect endangered fish under a Biological Opinion, or BiOp, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.

The agencies are operating under an interim management plan that is set to run through 2023. That plan calls for both minimum water levels in Upper Klamath Lake for Lost River and shortnose suckers, and high enough streamflows in lower Klamath Lake for salmon.

However, Payne said the bureau does not expect to have enough water this year to meet either of those thresholds. The BiOp normally calls for a minimum water elevation in Upper Klamath Lake of 4,142 feet for suckers, while maintaining up to 440,000 acre-feet of water for salmon below Iron Gate Dam, depending on conditions.

The bureau has hosted a half-dozen meetings with agency officials, irrigators and local tribes to develop its approach, which it hopes to adopt by the week of March 22.

“It’s our intention to incorporate all the feedback to the extent possible,” Payne said. “We are developing a plan to use the resources we have in the most effective way possible.”

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