KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Farms and ranches in the Klamath Project will likely have far less water during the 2020 irrigation season than they did a year ago, with at least one forecast predicting water supplies will be less than half of typical demand.
The Klamath Water Users Association estimates the project will receive approximately 140,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake, compared to 325,000 acre-feet in 2019.
The grim calculation is based on two main factors — first, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service published its latest report of water conditions across the Klamath Basin on April 1. Stream flows are expected to run 42% to 68% of average through September, according to the report, and water managers “should prepare for significantly reduced water supplies in the coming summer.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed an emergency drought declaration for Klamath County in March, and the U.S. Drought Monitor lists all of southwest Oregon in moderate to severe drought.
Second, the Bureau of Reclamation — which operates the Klamath Project — has agreed to keep more water in-stream for coho salmon as part of a three-year interim management plan after the agency was previously sued by a local tribe and several commercial fishing groups.
Coho are listed as threatened in the lower Klamath River under the Endangered Species Act. The bureau’s interim plan takes up to an additional 23,000 acre-feet of water from the Klamath Project to protect fish downstream in low water years.
The Klamath Project serves over 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland. Water for the project has been capped at 350,000 acre-feet in the past to comply with the ESA.
“Bottom line, we’re looking at less than half of the water that’s needed,” said Brad Kirby, manager of the Tulelake Irrigation District.
Laura Williams, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation in Klamath Falls, said the agency will officially announce the project’s water allocation after finishing a public review of the new interim operations plan, most likely on April 17.
“We do not expect people to take issue (with the plan),” Williams said.
The annual water allocation for the Klamath Project goes toward irrigating roughly 170,000 acres, mostly within the Tulelake Irrigation District, Klamath Irrigation District and Klamath Drainage District. It does not include any water from the Lost River system, or other limited sources.
The east side of the project, consisting of 30,000 acres in Langell Valley and Horsefly irrigation districts, relies exclusively on the Lost River system and should have a full supply available this year.
Meanwhile, irrigators are taking steps to compensate for this year’s low supply. The Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, a partnership of Klamath Project districts that formed in 2018 to address drought conditions, met on April 6 to adopt policies for incentivizing groundwater use.
On April 10, the agency will also consider a program for land idling by growers who normally use surface water. Marc Staunton, a fourth-generation farmer and president of the Drought Response Agency, said he is optimistic they will have about $10 million to work with this year and expects to open enrollment for programs by April 15.
“We’re doing our best to make contracts available as soon as we can,” Staunton said.