Now is usually the time of year when Brad Kirby, manager of the
Tulelake Irrigation District in northern California, starts
getting phone calls from farmers and ranchers asking about water
availability for the spring and summer growing seasons.
This year, however, he said he has no idea what to tell them.
Tulelake is the largest irrigation district within the federally
operated Klamath Project straddling the Oregon-California
border. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for
determining the project’s annual water supply, which Kirby said
this year remains a question mark.
Not only is the Klamath Basin lagging behind in terms of winter
snow and precipitation, but agencies are in the middle of
revising two management plans for endangered fish in the Klamath
River and Upper Klamath Lake, which could further limit water
Without those plans — known collectively as the Klamath Project
Biological Opinion, or BiOp — Kirby said he cannot predict how
much water will be available for the 400-plus family farms and
65,000 irrigated acres in his district.
For farmers, that makes it painfully difficult to decide which
fields they should plant and which crops they should grow.
“It’s a very disheartening feeling,” Kirby said. “People have
been making business decisions months in advance of having any
clue what will become of their irrigation season.”
Overall, the Klamath Project includes more than 200,000 acres of
farmland in the basin, providing irrigation for high-value crops
including potatoes, onions, garlic, sugar beets and horseradish.
Water managers must also account for several species of
threatened and endangered fish in the basin — namely Lost River
and shortnose suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, which the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service listed as endangered in 1988, and coho
salmon in the lower Klamath River, which the National Marine
Fisheries Service listed as threatened in 1997.
Agencies developed the Klamath Project BiOp under the Endangered
Species Act, which details how the Bureau of Reclamation will
allocate water in a given year to ensure the fish survive.
The BiOp was last updated on March 29, 2019, and was supposed to
span five years. Instead, it was scrapped last November after
the bureau said it received “erroneous data” from an outside
Since then, the feds have been working to get a revised BiOp in
place ahead of the 2020 irrigation season. The bureau submitted
a new biological assessment and operations plan to the Fish and
Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries on Feb. 7, and agencies have
stated they hope to finish their review by March 31.
Paul Simmons, executive director of the nonprofit Klamath Water
Users Association that represents 1,200 family farms and ranches
in the basin, said the proposed changes would result in a
“pretty significant” water shortage this year.
The new operations plan calls for tripling the amount of water,
from 10,000 acre-feet to 30,000 acre-feet, the bureau can
allocate from the irrigation project to protect fish in years of
low projected river flows. As of Feb. 18, the Klamath Basin had
just 78% of its normal snowpack, and 71% of normal
“If we have average weather conditions from here on out, that
would be a serious blow,” Simmons said.
On top of that, a lawsuit filed by the Yurok Tribe in
California, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations
and Institute for Fisheries Resources also seeks a preliminary
injunction to keep another 50,000 acre-feet of water in-stream
for Klamath River salmon this year.
Simmons said a hearing in that case will be held in a San
Francisco courtroom on Feb. 28.
Struggling with uncertainty
Farmers, meanwhile, are left with lingering uncertainty as they
face key decisions about their operations for the coming year.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” said Tricia Hill, a fourth-generation
farmer with Walker Farms and Gold Dust Potato Processors in
Malin, Ore. “The best way I can describe it is this constant low
level of anxiety.”
Gold Dust contracts with popular brands such as Frito-Lay and
Kettle Foods to grow potatoes that will be made into potato
chips. While the contracts stipulate how much they need to grow,
Hill said not knowing how much water is available might force
them to change when and where they will plant.
“You’re being forced to make a decision that, from other
economic and environmental standpoints, would not be the best
decision,” she said.
Hill, who also serves as president of the Klamath Water Users
Association Board of Directors, said she expects this year would
be a nail-biter, even in a best-case scenario. If the farm
severely under-performs for Frito-Lay, she said there is a good
chance the company might take its business elsewhere, which
would send an economic ripple effect through the community.
“Our small communities depend on farmers eating in the local
coffee shop and going to the local equipment dealer,” she said.
“It’s just a tough spot to be in.”
Paul Crawford, who grows about 500 acres of wheat, grass and hay
in Malin, faces similar challenges. Everything revolves around
having enough water, he said.
“Should I have sprayed? Should I have saved that money? You just
go back and forth with yourself,” Crawford said. “It’s really
difficult to manage any sort of operation.”
Unless something changes in the BiOp and fish management,
Crawford said the region’s water woes will make it hard for him
to remain in the Klamath Basin with his family.
“If we can’t make a living here, we can’t stay here,” he said.
“Agriculture drives this basin. It’s plain to see.”
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