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Water shutoff leaves Klamath farmers scrambling to save crops

TULELAKE, Calif. — For Mike McKoen, a year of uncertainty farming in the Klamath Project has become a fight to the finish.

With onion harvest fast approaching, McKoen had been counting on a steady supply of water from Upper Klamath Lake to irrigate his fields at a critical point in the growing season. Otherwise, he risks the crop dying in the ground and his investment turning to dust.

Then came the Aug. 19 announcement from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The project had run out of water for the summer, despite farmers’ arguments to the contrary. All remaining water in the system was needed to protect endangered fish, according to the agency.

Suddenly, McKoen and others who planted row crops earlier in the spring found themselves in a precarious situation, and one with no easy — or cheap — answers.

“It’s become the all-consuming thing in our lives,” McKoen said. “I’m scrambling. I’m in meetings, I’m in coffee shops with neighbors, I’m talking to people non-stop.”

In at least one case, McKoen, who farms on both sides of the Oregon-California border, said he’s had to pipe groundwater over a mile to irrigate onions. The well is permitted for this supplemental land, he said, though it has never had to be used before because surface water was always historically available.

McKoen’s main focus is saving his onions. He’s already written off a second cutting in his peppermint fields.

Still, it may not be enough. Groundwater can only sustain a fraction of the farmland within the Klamath Project, and that’s if the wells and pumps don’t fail.

“Anything could happen,” said Brad Kirby, manager of the Tulelake Irrigation District in Tulelake, Calif. “You just cross your fingers and hope for the best.”

How we got here

From the beginning, irrigators knew they were in for a challenging season.

Reclamation, which regulates the Klamath Project, initially allocated 50,000 acre-feet of water for farms from Upper Klamath Lake in April. That is just 15% of full demand, as the basin has struggled through three straight years of extreme drought.

Officials, however, offered a degree of flexibility. If inflows into the lake exceeded expectations, then half of that additional water would also go to the project.

Timely spring rains did exactly that, and by Aug. 1, the bureau stated the project supply was up to 82,253 acre-feet of water.

At the same time, Reclamation was also closely monitoring the water elevation in Upper Klamath Lake to ensure it was high enough for two species of endangered sucker fish to access shoreline habitat, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

The suckers — known as C’waam and Koptu — are central to the Klamath Tribes’ culture, though they face near-extinction.

As the summer progressed, farmers say Reclamation kept changing the end-of-season water elevation needed for suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.

Normally, the “absolute minimum” elevation is set at 4,138 feet above sea level. Reclamation added a buffer of 4,138.15 feet above sea level, which it later increased to 4,138.62 feet.

Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the changes were “far above any level ever claimed to be necessary for endangered sucker species,” while cutting off access to another 45,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation.

The Klamath Irrigation District, which operates the project’s A Canal near Klamath Falls, Ore., flirted with defying the government’s shutdown order, but relented after Reclamation threatened to withhold millions of dollars of emergency drought funding.

Happening now

McKoen said the changes left farmers feeling as though the rug had been pulled out from under them.

“This is a tough deal,” he said. “I’m trying to save my onions. These are onions that were planted in a very meticulous way, in areas that should have had water all year. When they change the rules mid-stream, that’s not conducive to success.”

He is not alone. John Crawford, president of the Tulelake Irrigation District, said he planted just 500 of his 1,400 acres of farmland this year. District-wide, TID farmers left 25,000 total acres fallow, or about 40% all farmed ground.

Crawford, who grows potatoes for the chipping and fresh markets, said TID is pumping groundwater from each of 10 district-owned wells to help farmers finish their row crops.

Even with all the wells at full capacity, that is only enough to provide irrigation to 15% of the district, Crawford said.

“We’re all doing deficit irrigation, and have been doing that for all of this summer,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we will be able to (finish) without the destruction of any crops.”

Doing so comes with a price. Kirby, the district’s manager, said they have spent the last two years trying to reverse-engineer the system to pump water to places where they never thought possible, though it has been difficult and “extraordinarily expensive.”

Kirby said patrons could receive millions of dollars in higher fuel and power bills. If water demand is greater than supply at any given moment, the district has implemented a waiting list to fill orders as quickly as possible.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to help ensure, with no guarantees, that every one of our patrons gets their intended crop this year to harvest,” he said. “I just hope it holds out.”



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