KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has issued a new plan to reduce water temperatures for endangered fish in the Upper Klamath and Lost River watersheds, though it could come at a price for farmers and ranchers.
The plan, which specifies Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, sets limits on pollutants — in this case, heat — that can be present in streams and rivers to protect water quality.
DEQ previously issued plans in 2010 for the Upper Klamath and Lost River sub-basins in Southern Oregon for dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, acidity and ammonia toxicity.
Regulators had to develop a new temperature model, however, after it was struck down in court.
The federal Clean Water Act requires DEQ to develop plans with pollution targets in watersheds where water quality is lagging. The Upper Klamath and Lost River sub-basins contain several species of endangered fish, including shortnose and Lost River suckers.
Richard Whitman, DEQ director, said the plan puts Oregon “on a path toward restoring water quality and protecting our precious natural resources in the Klamath Basin.”
“It’s a complex task, and we’re grateful for the ongoing collaboration with our Klamath-area partners whose efforts will ultimately make this goal a reality,” Whitman said in a statement.
DEQ released the plan on Sept. 20. It identifies sources of heat along the rivers and their tributaries, and allocates “pollutant loads” at each source to reduce water temperatures.
Both sub-basins have a combined area of roughly 11,760 square miles spanning Southern Oregon and Northern California. The DEQ plan only addresses temperature sources on the Oregon side.
Mike Hiatt, plan coordinator for DEQ, said the agency focused on point sources and non-point sources of heat. Point sources include wastewater treatment plants in the city of Klamath Falls, and at least two lumber mills, owned by Columbia Forest Products and Collins Co.
Non-point sources address factors such as adding riparian vegetation, which can provide much-needed shade, and irrigation withdrawals.
“There is a certain amount of pollution that a system can handle,” Hiatt said. “We have to work with the designated management agencies and point sources to try and minimize their (heat) input.”
Hiatt said water temperatures in some stretches of the basin can reach upward of 80 degrees, which is dangerously high for fish. Temperatures for suckers should not exceed 82.4 degrees, he said.
The plan now goes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has until Sept. 30 to give its approval.
Organizations representing farmers and irrigation districts have raised concerns with DEQ about how the plan will impact operations, and whether the temperature targets are achievable.
Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said they did not know about the TMDL proposal until it was released for public comment in May. DEQ also did not include individual farmers or irrigation districts as part of an advisory committee for the plan, she said.
The advisory committee was made up of representatives from agencies, Hiatt said, including the Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Agriculture and Klamath Tribes.
The Klamath TMDL is particularly concerning, Cooper said, because for the first time DEQ has mandated in-stream flows to help meet temperature targets.
“That water is going to come from irrigation delivery,” Cooper said. “That is a very concerning and scary precedent for agriculture.”
Hiatt said there are two areas in particular where in-stream flows may be required to prevent lethally high water temperatures for fish in the Lost River watershed. The first, at Malone Diversion Dam, would require 25 cubic feet of water per second if temperatures exceed standard. The second is at Anderson-Rose Diversion Dam, which would require 11 cfs of in-stream flow.
In its comments to DEQ, the Klamath Water Users Association said the temperature requirements are unreasonable and would require potentially costly upgrades.
The association represents more than 1,200 family farms and ranches over 170,000 acres in the Klamath Project. Mark Johnson, the association’s deputy director, said growers are nervous about the added regulations, especially in a system that is historically shallow and slow-moving.
“A lot of (producers) recycle their water and use it even throughout multiple fields,” Johnson said. “They eventually discharge it back into the river. In some of these areas, DEQ is really focusing on this recycled water.”
While the association said it has not yet conducted its own analysis, one engineering report from a California regional water quality control board estimates it would cost more than $700 million to install facilities to cool 317 million gallons of treated wastewater a day — about 491 cfs — by 9 degrees.
DEQ acknowledged in its response that there will be costs associated with complying with the TMDL. The agency will work with irrigation districts to develop and implement management plans, saying it is open to alternative management strategies in lieu of in-stream water flows as long as they can still achieve the temperature targets.