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Reclamation backtracks, won't curtail Klamath Project water


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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 irrigated farmland.

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.


No reductions

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 River.

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 the project.

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.”

The agency did not go into details about specific water saving measures, though Simmons said part of the adjustment has to do with the ongoing demolition of four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River.

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.

But reaching that solution didn’t come without severe anxiety, he said.

”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 would be.”

Reclamation says it will continue to monitor hydrological conditions, including inflows into Upper Klamath Lake, as the irrigation season comes to a close.

Tribes respond

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.

In 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 species needs." 

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 upstream.

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.

"By 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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              Page Updated: Thursday October 26, 2023 11:21 PM  Pacific

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