KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The U.S. Bureau
of Reclamation will not curtail water to the Klamath Project
in Southern Oregon and Northern California, despite an
earlier warning to irrigators that cutbacks might be
necessary to satisfy protections for endangered fish.
The bureau initially said in May it
would provide 260,000 acre-feet of water to the project from
Upper Klamath Lake. On Aug. 18, Alan Heck, acting area
director for Reclamation, sent
a letter to tribes and
irrigation districts notifying them of a projected shortfall
in water to the project, which serves 230,000 acres of
The situation was “likely” to require
an early shutdown of the project, Heck wrote. Farmers and
ranchers worried the timing was likely to result in millions
of dollars of damage to row crops, including potatoes,
onions and garlic.
Instead, Reclamation announced on
Sept. 5 that the project allocation will remain at 260,000
acre-feet with no reductions to irrigators.
The reversal is “due to improved
hydrology in the Klamath Basin over the last two weeks;
opportunities for Upper Klamath Lake water conservation this
fall and winter; and coordination with tribal partners and
water users,” according to officials.
“Managing the limited (water) supplies
of 2023 required close coordination with the entire basin
and is a clear example that collaboration and communication
is the key to this basin’s success,” said Reclamation
Commissioner Camille Touton.
Matthew Strickler, assistant secretary
for fish and parks with the Interior Department, said a
resolution came about following weeks of conversations with
partners in the basin.
“We landed in a place that confirms
our commitment to water users and fulfilling environmental
needs,” Strickler said.
As part of operating the Klamath
Project, Reclamation is required to meet federally mandated
targets for threatened and endangered fish. These include
two species of critically endangered sucker fish in Upper
Klamath Lake, and declining salmon runs in the lower Klamath
In its most recent biological opinion
for Lost River and shortnose suckers — also known as C’waam
and Koptu by the Klamath Tribes — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service required Upper Klamath Lake be kept at 4,138 feet of
elevation by Sept. 30.
However, Reclamation boosted that
level up to 4,139.2 feet in its 2023 operations plan. The
increase was based on a lawsuit filed by the Yurok Tribe and
two nonprofit fishing groups trying to ensure there would be
enough stored water to meet minimum streamflows for salmon
in the Klamath River.
After a hot and dry month of July, it
appeared Reclamation was not on track to meet that
requirement, said Paul Simmons, executive director of the
Klamath Water Users Association.
Simmons called the revised lake level
an “artificial constraint,” and one that already led to a
reduced project allocation. Normally, irrigators would use
400,000 acre-feet of water to farm all 230,000 acres within
Shutting the project down early would
have been devastating, Simmons said, as farmers have already
invested thousands of dollars per acre to plant their fields
and grow their crops.
“Frankly, it’s preposterous that this
was even under consideration,” Simmons said of the potential
curtailment. “I’m certainly glad (Reclamation) didn’t order
something that would have been so chaotic.”
As those reservoirs are drawn down
early next year, Simmons said it will allow for less water
to be released from Upper Klamath Lake, simultaneously
meeting water levels for suckers and streamflows for salmon.
reaching that solution didn’t come without severe anxiety,
”I’ve aged 20 years in the last three weeks,” Simmons said
with a chuckle. “We primarily were just doing everything we
could to communicate how bad this would be, and wrong it
Reclamation says it will continue to monitor hydrological
conditions, including inflows into Upper Klamath Lake, as
the irrigation season comes to a close.
Clayton Dumont, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, criticized
the bureau for failing to meet the 4,139.2-foot lake
elevation as promised for C'waam and Koptu.
particular, Dumont said the tribes are "troubled that
Reclamation has yet again found a way to deliver
over-promised water to project irrigators at the expense of
Dumont also accused the agency of dragging its feet on a
project to reconnect Upper Klamath Lake to 14,000 acres of
historical wetlands in the Agency and Barnes units of the
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
Wetland restoration is critical to improve water quality in
the lake, Dumont said. These lands essentially act as the
"kidneys" of the ecosystem, filtering out sediment and
nutrients such as phosphorous coming from farms and ranches
But restoring the wetlands' function
requires an initial volume of water. The water users
association and irrigation districts have expressed
concerns about the project, arguing
it will result in even less water available for agriculture
by increasing evapotranspiration.
once again seeking to maximize irrigation project
deliveries, Reclamation is setting up a false choice between
combatting the toxic water in (Upper Klamath Lake) and
having enough water for our fish to spawn in lakeshore
springs," Dumont said. "This is another shameful chapter in
the history of the Bureau of Reclamation."
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