Local farmers and ranchers from the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon are hitting the road for San Francisco to witness a pivotal court hearing that may determine when they can finally start irrigating their crops this year.
It is yet another chapter in the ongoing dispute to balance water rights for agriculture and endangered fish along the Klamath River.
Water users are especially nervous now heading into summer, as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown already declared a drought emergency in Klamath County on March 13. Snowpack is just 51 percent of normal across the basin, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service predicts stream flows between April and September may range anywhere from just 24 to 58 percent of average.
Or, as Scott White of the Klamath Water Users Association put it, “This is not a fun time down here.”
“People have just been trying to get by,” said White, KWUA executive director. “Anxiety is through the roof in this basin right now.”
Yet the Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the Klamath Project, still has not been able to announce a water allocation or irrigation start date for the season. That’s because the agency is hung up on a previous court ruling that requires 50,000 acre-feet of stored water for in-stream flows to wash away a deadly parasite that attacks coho salmon, known as C. shasta.
The injunction, filed Feb. 8, 2017 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, essentially calls for three types of flows to combat C. shasta. The first is a “flushing flow” of 6,030 cubic feet per second for 72 hours, which must be completed every year before the end of April. There is also a “deep flushing flow,” which is required every other year but not for 2018.
The last is what’s known as “dilution flows,” which are contingent on the presence of C. shasta spores in the river. If water tests higher than five spores per liter, that triggers the release of 3,000 cubic feet per second for seven days below Iron Gate Dam to cleanse the stream. If that doesn’t work, water releases are ramped up to 4,000 cubic feet per second for another seven days.
Dilution flows are no longer needed once 80 percent of the salmon have migrated out to the Pacific Ocean, but White said that date can be difficult to pin down, and is making it difficult for water users to plan for the summer. Releases also cannot interfere with water needed for endangered sucker fish that inhabit Upper Klamath Lake.
The Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Klamath Riverkeeper and the Hoopa Valley Tribe sought the injunction to protect juvenile coho after several years of deadly C. shasta outbreak.
The KWUA, along with Klamath Irrigation District, Sunnyside Irrigation District, Ben Duvall Klamath Drainage District and Pine Grove Irrigation District, recently filed a motion to stay the court’s injunction. U.S. District Judge William Orrick will hold a hearing Wednesday, April 11 to consider the argument.
White said the water users association has reserved a bus with 45 seats to take farmers and ranchers down to the hearing in a show of support. It is possible Judge Orrick may rule from the bench that very day, and White said he is optimistic about the outcome.
“That’s really all we have to live on, is hope and faith that the judge will see things our way,” he said.
The Bureau of Reclamation has proposed an irrigation start date of April 19 and water allocation of 252,000 acre-feet — roughly 36 percent less than full allocation for the project.
Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, said they sympathize with basin farmers, but unless something is done to stop the onslaught of C. shasta, it may push Klamath salmon to extinction.
“For us, it’s an existential problem,” Spain said. “We don’t exist as salmon fishermen without salmon.”
The PCFFA represents most of the West Coast commercial fishing industry. Like farmers, Spain said they are helping families to put food on the table. Unfortunately, with an over-allocated river, he said, the demand for water is turning good people, and valuable industries, against one another.
“We need that water in the river. Farmers understandably need it on their crops. And there is not enough to go around,” Spain said.
The late start to irrigation season is already a killer for farmers and ranchers struggling to turn a profit, White said. He hopes this ordeal will demonstrate these types of issues are best worked out at the local level, instead of handed down by the court.
“Not only is it expensive, but it’s never an ideal outcome,” White said.
Anyone interested in taking the bus to San Francisco can contact the KWUA office at 541-883-6100.