Klamath Project A Canal

Water flows from Upper Klamath Lake into the A Canal, part of the Klamath Project. Most farmers within the project will be allocated far less water than they received last year.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — As expected, irrigators in the Klamath Project are getting less water than they will likely need this summer thanks to a combination of dry weather and more water being kept in-stream to protect threatened coho salmon.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will provide approximately 140,000 acre-feet of water to farms and ranches from Upper Klamath Lake in 2020, the agency announced April 22.

That is only one-third of historical demand for the Klamath Project, which delivers irrigation water to 230,000 acres of farmland in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

“We are having a very challenging water year,” said Jeff Nettleton, the bureau’s Klamath Basin Area Office manager. “We’ve had a dry fall, winter and spring, resulting in a low snowpack and significantly lower-than-average reservoir inflows. These conditions make it even more challenging than normal to meet all the water needs in the basin.”

The Klamath Basin is averaging just 57% of normal snowpack and 66% of normal precipitation for the water year dating back to Oct. 1, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a drought declaration for Klamath County in March.

As of April 1, the surface elevation of Upper Klamath Lake — which feeds into the Klamath River — was 4,142 feet, equivalent to 448,495 acre-feet of stored water. The latest NRCS forecast predicts inflows into Upper Klamath Lake between April and September will be 290,000 acre-feet, or 60% of normal.

To make supplies even tighter, the bureau has agreed to send more water down the Klamath River to protect coho from a disease as part of a new three-year interim operating plan.

The plan, finalized Wednesday, comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources against the bureau, seeking an additional 50,000 acre-feet of water for salmon.

Instead, the bureau promised to provide an additional 23,000 acre-feet for Klamath River coho during low water years through 2023, and the plaintiffs agreed to suspend, though not withdraw, their case.

The bureau began releasing 1,325 cubic feet per second of water below Iron Gate Dam in California on April 22, which will gradually ramp up to 6,000 cfs through May 1. The idea is to flush away a deadly fish-killing parasite known as C. shasta that thrives in slow-moving warm water.

The agreement with tribes and commercial fishing groups also buys more time for the bureau to complete a longer-term operating plan. Federal law requires consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect several species of threatened and endangered fish, including Klamath River coho and suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.

A five-year plan was released in 2019, but scrapped after the bureau determined it had received erroneous information from an outside source.

David Felstul, water operations chief for the bureau’s Klamath Basin Area office, said it all amounts to a delicate balancing act for resources.

”Every acre-foot of water is valuable and is in limited supply,” Festul said.

The Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farms and ranches in the Klamath Project, calculated the 140,000 acre-foot water allotment several weeks in advance. The Klamath Project Drought Response Agency is working with growers to enroll in financial programs that could blunt the impact of water shortages, such as idling land.

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