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'Another dust bowl': Klamath Basin growers say 2021 water shortage will have lasting impacts

(Photo courtesy US Geological Survey)

Both the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture announced monetary assistance for the Klamath Project on Wednesday, but the funding comes in lieu of water for irrigation.

Posted: Apr 14, 2021 12:17 PM
Updated: Apr 14, 2021 5:23 PM

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — 2021 is shaping up to be the worst year on record for drought conditions in the Klamath Basin, and federal agencies have promised relief funding for farmers as any meaningful supply of water for irrigation appears increasingly unlikely.

Members of Oregon's Congressional delegation said on Tuesday that they had met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss relief for the Klamath Basin. By Wednesday morning, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture released their plans for the region.

Reclamation said in a statement that it will allocate $15 million in immediate aid for the Klamath Project, plus $3 million in technical assistance for local Tribes. The news of assistance was accompanied by Reclamation's temporary operations plan for the Klamath Project — one that's unlikely to please many of the Basin's stakeholders.

“This water year is unlike anything the Project has ever seen,” said Reclamation deputy commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “We will continue to monitor the hydrology and look for opportunities for operational flexibility, provide assistance to Project water users and the Tribes, and keep an open dialogue with our stakeholders, the states, and across the federal government to get through this water year together.”

According to the operations plan, farmers of the Klamath Project will receive an initial allocation of water at 33,000 acre-feet, but not until at least May 15. Any further water allocations will come no earlier than June 1.

Meanwhile, levels at Upper Klamath Lake will be maintained at or above 4,138.3 feet, with additional water for the Project made available from the surplus, if any.

The Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA), which represents farmers in the region, said on Wednesday that the initial water allotment is only about six percent of the need for growers. And with any further water still an uncertainty, the organization said that farmers will not be able to plan ahead.

KWUA president Ben DuVal pointed to Tribal-led efforts to preserve native fish species as the prime culprit in the lack of water for irrigation, by mandating water levels in Upper Klamath Lake and requiring flows down into the Klamath River. The KWUA maintains that diverting water for irrigation has had "no detrimental effects" on the protected fish populations.

"It hasn't worked in 25 years. It won't work this year," said DuVal, "all it will do is create another dust bowl, destroy our farming communities and decimate our wildlife."

Regardless, water shortages this year will not only impact growers. It will also reduce the baseline that other stakeholders, like the Tribes, have come to rely on in their efforts to help fish species rebound.

"The 2021 Temporary Operations Plan recognizes that the current drought conditions have produced insufficient water supplies available to meet the competing demands for water in the basin necessary to maintain water in Upper Klamath Lake for endangered C’waam (Lost River sucker) and Koptu (shortnose sucker) and to provide extensive spring flushing flows in the Klamath River for the Naypooie/A’ama (fall run Chinook salmon and threatened Southern Oregon Northern California Coast fall run Coho salmon), as specified in separate Biological Opinions from the Service and NMFS," Reclamation said.

The Department of Agriculture said that it will make available up to $10 million in assistance from the agency's "Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus" for Klamath Project irrigators impacted by the drought conditions. The program allows Oregon and California to provide block grants for impacted farmers, either based on drought losses from prior years or by funding producers that agree "not to use irrigation in 2021."

"As ongoing drought conditions in the West continue to worsen, USDA is committed to providing help and assistance to producers, Tribes, and communities in the Klamath River Basin impacted by historically low water allocations,” said Gloria Montano Greene, deputy under secretary for Farm Production and Conservation.

Governor Kate Brown also issued a statement Wednesday weighing in on the matter, promising that the Klamath drought crisis has the attention of state officials.

“This year the Klamath Basin faces drought conditions that have not been seen in decades. Much of the American West faces similar, unprecedented drought," Brown said. "Prolonged drought creates hardships that impact people and ecosystems, farms, ranches and communities. My message to the people of the Klamath Basin today is this: You are not alone."

“At the state level, the Water Resources Department is making it their top priority to review and approve emergency groundwater use drought permits that can irrigate up to 2.5 acre feet of water per acre — sufficient water to produce a crop this year," the Governor continued.

Though funding and other stop-gap measures are no doubt better than nothing for growers in the Klamath Basin, the KWUA made clear that it does not represent a permanent solution for an ongoing problem.

"Farmers are called producers for a reason. They would rather produce than be reduced to mitigation funding that will never be sufficient to fill the gap left by the loss of irrigation water," said KQUA executive director Paul Simmons. "A long-term solution that guarantees a sustainable irrigation supply is the only course of action that provides a future for the Klamath Basin."

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