KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation delivered a gut-punch to Klamath Project irrigators Wednesday, announcing a historically low water allocation as the basin struggles with extreme drought.
Farms and ranches in the Project will receive an initial allocation of just 33,000 acre-feet — the lowest total since the shutdown of 2001 and barely 8% of historical demand.
That is dramatically lower than the bureau's original estimate of 130,000 acre-feet based on hydrological conditions at the beginning of March. Since then, snowpack in the Klamath Basin has dropped to 72% of normal for the water year dating back to Oct. 1, and precipitation is just 67% of normal.
The Klamath Project provides irrigation for 230,000 acres of farmland in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Camille Touton, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, said this water year is unlike anything the Project has ever seen.
"We will continue to monitor the hydrology and look for opportunities for operational flexibility, provide assistance to Klamath Project water users and the tribes, and keep an open dialogue with our stakeholders, the states, and across the federal government to get through this water year together," Touton said.
Initial water supplies from Upper Klamath Lake will be available to recharge Project canals and provide for some limited irrigation no earlier than May 15. Remaining water will be delivered no earlier than June 1, jeopardizing full production of crops such as potatoes, alfalfa, mint, horseradish and garlic.
The bureau will maintain Upper Klamath Lake at or above a minimum elevation of 4,138.3 feet, "whereby additional project water may be available," according to the bureau. Reclamation will monitor and adjust available water on at least a semi-monthly basis.
Officials also announced $15 million in immediate aid to the Klamath Project through the Klamath Project Drought Relief Agency, which provides funding for drought relief programs including groundwater pumping and land idling.
An additional $3 million will go to the tribes for ecosystem activities aimed at protecting endangered fish, as well as monitoring groundwater levels throughout the basin.
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, as well as Rep. Cliff Bentz, announced the emergency funding in a joint statement.
"Although there is still much more work to be done, these funds are important to providing an increased level of immediate relief to farmers," said Bentz, Oregon's only congressional Republican whose district includes the Klamath Basin.
On April 12, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also approved a drought declaration for Klamath, Coos, Curry, Jackson, Josephine, Douglas and Lane Counties. Producers in those counties will be eligible for additional emergency relief from the Farm Service Agency.
Under Reclamation's temporary operations plan for the Klamath Project in 2021, it recognizes there is not enough water available to meet competing demands for farms and fish.
The plan provides guidelines for Reclamation to adaptively manage Project operations this spring to maintain certain levels of water in Upper Klamath Lake for Lost River and shortnose suckers, as well as preserve options for flushing flows downstream for salmon in the lower Klamath River.
Reclamation says it will maintain certain river flows for salmon through September 2021.
While the news was widely expected, it is no less devastating to the basin's agricultural community. The Klamath Water Users Association and irrigation districts held an operations meeting Wednesday morning to discuss their plans going forward with patrons who stand to see their fields run dry.
In a statement, KWUA President Ben DuVal said farms, rural communities and wildlife are going to suffer "beyond imagination."
DuVal said the bureau's strategy of allocating more water previously used for irrigation to protect fish is flawed. In past drought years, irrigation diversions were more than 400,000 acre-feet with no detrimental effects to fish species being identified, he said.
"It hasn't worked in 25 years," said DuVal, who farms in Tulelake, Calif. "It won't work this year. All it will do is create another dust bowl, destroy our farming communities and decimate our wildlife."
Paul Simmons, KWUA executive director, said the association is working to minimize the impacts on the irrigation community.
"A long-term solution that guarantees a sustainable irrigation supply is the only course of action that provides a future for the Klamath Basin," Simmons said.