Now is usually the time of year when Brad Kirby, manager of the Tulelake Irrigation District in northern California, starts getting phone calls from farmers and ranchers asking about water availability for the spring and summer growing seasons.

This year, however, he said he has no idea what to tell them.

Tulelake is the largest irrigation district within the federally operated Klamath Project straddling the Oregon-California border. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for determining the project’s annual water supply, which Kirby said this year remains a question mark.

Not only is the Klamath Basin lagging behind in terms of winter snow and precipitation, but agencies are in the middle of revising two management plans for endangered fish in the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake, which could further limit water for irrigation.

Without those plans — known collectively as the Klamath Project Biological Opinion, or BiOp — Kirby said he cannot predict how much water will be available for the 400-plus family farms and 65,000 irrigated acres in his district.

For farmers, that makes it painfully difficult to decide which fields they should plant and which crops they should grow.

“It’s a very disheartening feeling,” Kirby said. “People have been making business decisions months in advance of having any clue what will become of their irrigation season.”

BiOps, lawsuit

Overall, the Klamath Project includes more than 200,000 acres of farmland in the basin, providing irrigation for high-value crops including potatoes, onions, garlic, sugar beets and horseradish.

Water managers must also account for several species of threatened and endangered fish in the basin — namely Lost River and shortnose suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed as endangered in 1988, and coho salmon in the lower Klamath River, which the National Marine Fisheries Service listed as threatened in 1997.

Agencies developed the Klamath Project BiOp under the Endangered Species Act, which details how the Bureau of Reclamation will allocate water in a given year to ensure the fish survive.

The BiOp was last updated on March 29, 2019, and was supposed to span five years. Instead, it was scrapped last November after the bureau said it received “erroneous data” from an outside source.

Since then, the feds have been working to get a revised BiOp in place ahead of the 2020 irrigation season. The bureau submitted a new biological assessment and operations plan to the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries on Feb. 7, and agencies have stated they hope to finish their review by March 31.

Paul Simmons, executive director of the nonprofit Klamath Water Users Association that represents 1,200 family farms and ranches in the basin, said the proposed changes would result in a “pretty significant” water shortage this year.

The new operations plan calls for tripling the amount of water, from 10,000 acre-feet to 30,000 acre-feet, the bureau can allocate from the irrigation project to protect fish in years of low projected river flows. As of Feb. 18, the Klamath Basin had just 78% of its normal snowpack, and 71% of normal precipitation.

“If we have average weather conditions from here on out, that would be a serious blow,” Simmons said.

On top of that, a lawsuit filed by the Yurok Tribe in California, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources also seeks a preliminary injunction to keep another 50,000 acre-feet of water in-stream for Klamath River salmon this year.

Simmons said a hearing in that case will be held in a San Francisco courtroom on Feb. 28.

Struggling with uncertainty

Farmers, meanwhile, are left with lingering uncertainty as they face key decisions about their operations for the coming year.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” said Tricia Hill, a fourth-generation farmer with Walker Farms and Gold Dust Potato Processors in Malin, Ore. “The best way I can describe it is this constant low level of anxiety.”

Gold Dust contracts with popular brands such as Frito-Lay and Kettle Foods to grow potatoes that will be made into potato chips. While the contracts stipulate how much they need to grow, Hill said not knowing how much water is available might force them to change when and where they will plant.

“You’re being forced to make a decision that, from other economic and environmental standpoints, would not be the best decision,” she said.

Hill, who also serves as president of the Klamath Water Users Association Board of Directors, said she expects this year would be a nail-biter, even in a best-case scenario. If the farm severely under-performs for Frito-Lay, she said there is a good chance the company might take its business elsewhere, which would send an economic ripple effect through the community.

“Our small communities depend on farmers eating in the local coffee shop and going to the local equipment dealer,” she said. “It’s just a tough spot to be in.”

Paul Crawford, who grows about 500 acres of wheat, grass and hay in Malin, faces similar challenges. Everything revolves around having enough water, he said.

“Should I have sprayed? Should I have saved that money? You just go back and forth with yourself,” Crawford said. “It’s really difficult to manage any sort of operation.”

Unless something changes in the BiOp and fish management, Crawford said the region’s water woes will make it hard for him to remain in the Klamath Basin with his family.

“If we can’t make a living here, we can’t stay here,” he said. “Agriculture drives this basin. It’s plain to see.”

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