Klamath farmers fear midseason water shutoff
California Farm Bureat
Federation Ag Alert by Christine Souze 6/6/18
Tough decisions about whether to plant crops have faced farmers
and ranchers within the Klamath Water Project. They have little
guarantee they will receive enough water to finish the
season—and continuing legal action could shut off water this
"What's frustrating is the roller coaster; we don't know where
we're at from one week to the next," said farmer Scott Seus of
Tulelake. "We're all trying to be optimists. It would be easy to
throw your arms up and just walk away, but we all put our boots
on every morning and go back to work."
Some relief came June 1, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,
which manages the project, released water stored in Upper
Klamath Lake to farmers to irrigate crops.
Reclamation spokesperson Laura Williams said the bureau
forecasts approximately 194,000 acre-feet of water will be
available from Upper Klamath Lake from June 1 through the end of
the season on Sept. 30, which she said "constitutes 75 percent
of the historical average demand for that period."
For the most part, water to irrigators was shut off during May,
after a federal judge denied a motion brought by the Klamath
Water Users Association and member districts for relief from a
The injunction, brought by the Klamath tribes, required the
bureau to maintain a reserve of 50,000 acre-feet of stored water
through early June, to be released as dilution flows to help
prevent a parasitic disease that harms juvenile salmon in the
Williams said the bureau did provide about 17,000 acre-feet of
water for irrigation during May, including water borrowed from
the utility PacificCorp, released from reservoirs on the eastern
side of the project and from Upper Klamath Lake.
Seus said the total of slightly more than 200,000 acre-feet "is
short and is not enough for the project to be irrigated."
"There is ground that is going to be dry and there are people
that are not going to irrigate," he said, estimating 20,000
acres in the project would be left idle this season due to a
lack of water.
In his case, Seus said he will likely fallow some acres and,
like others in the basin, divert any available water to crops
such as onions and potatoes. Most Klamath Basin farmers, he
said, are wrapping up planting.
Potato growers planted late to make sure they had enough water
and onion growers planted early. In late May, when water was
shut off to irrigators and instead delivered as dilution flows,
there was an unusual rainstorm, Seus said, which gave crops
desperately needed moisture.
"We had a couple of inches and it flooded in places, so it was
pretty unprecedented," he said. "It fell at the same time the
bureau said, 'We're going to shut you off,' so it got us through
Tricia Hill, part-owner of a family farming business that
includes Gold Dust Potato Processors near Malin, Ore., said the
business is still planting potatoes that should have been
planted earlier in the season.
"We usually firm up our farm plan in February and this year,
because of the water uncertainty, we didn't do that. We simply
couldn't," said Hill, whose company grows and contracts with
potato growers in California and Oregon. "Several times, we sat
down to create a plan A and plan B, but there was so much
uncertainty, it made it really challenging."
The company's conversations with potato growers the past few
months included confirming acreage and planting locations, and a
backup plan for water. If unable to fill potato contracts, Hill
said, the business is worried its customers will find new
In addition, another lawsuit filed by Klamath tribes late last
month could affect water supplies. In the latest suit, filed
against the bureau and federal fishery agencies, the tribes
argue that conditions in Upper Klamath Lake have led to reduced
populations of endangered shortnose and Lost River suckerfish.
The lawsuit alleges the bureau violated the U.S. Endangered
Species Act by allowing the lake level to drop below minimum
conservation levels for fish.
If the federal judge rules in the tribes' favor, Seus said,
irrigation water could be shut off in mid-July.
"Then we've really got an issue," he said. "At that point, there
are crops in the ground everywhere."
Hill also expressed concern about a midseason loss of water.
"Our greatest fear is we end up in a situation where there isn't
water available and we have crop failures, which could
potentially destroy our contractual business," she said. "It's
Mark Johnson, Klamath Water Users Association deputy director
and fisheries biologist, said there's no hard evidence to
suggest suckerfish would benefit from the higher lake levels
sought in the latest lawsuit.
"We've had good (fish) recruitment in low water years and we've
had fish kills in low water years—it's just across the board,"
Johnson said. "There are many other factors that affect the fish
than lake elevation, including non-native species, entrainment
issues and a multitude of other factors."
Federal legislation passed in March includes about $10 million
in aid for Klamath Basin farmers and tribes.
"There's money to help with land idling and groundwater pumping
to encourage water for the basin," Seus said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag
Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
See related commentary: Farmers
must work together to solve water problems (May
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