Growing with less water - Klamath Project irrigators utilize all their resources to raise crops this year

July 31, 2003

Herald and News

Klamath Falls, Oregon

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

Klamath Basin grower Dan Chin checks the amount of water pumping from a well he co-owns with farmer Gary Orem. With limits placed on Klamath Project water, basin growers are finding alternative ways of irrigating their crops in the summer heat.

Klamath Project irrigators utilize all their resources to raise crops this year

The Klamath Project is home to some 413 wildlife species -- and that's what John Crawford enjoys most about farming his 1,400 acres.

Crawford, 55, and his brother Rob, grow 1,000 acres of wheat and barley, and 400 acres of mint, onions and potatoes.

"We enjoy the work, and the hundreds of species of wildlife," he said.

When John Crawford was discharged from the Army after a stint in Vietnam, he returned to the fields his father farmed since 1947.

This parcel of land along Wilson Road near Lost River High School, is among the 17,000 acres of Klamath Basin farmland that have been idled. The move to idle acreage is intended to keep more water in Upper Klamath Lake to accommodate endangered suckers, and Coho salmon downstream in the Klamath River.

An engineer in Vietnam, Crawford swept for mines and built bypasses around destroyed bridges. Now, he is among the many Klamath Basin irrigators who have been scrambling to find water for their fields.

One effort has been to idle some 17,000 acres of farmland; that leaves about 180,000 acres still in production.

Plus, irrigators take no more water from Upper Klamath Lake than 1,350 cubic feet per second -- a 25 percent reduction from what growers used in seasons past.

However, "within the last two weeks we have been well below the limit," said Dan Keppen, president of the Klamath Basin Water Users Association. Irrigators have kept outflows from the lake at between 1,140 and 1,250 cubic feet per second.

The extra rainfall in April -- that pushed the inflow designation from "dry" to "below average" -- never showed up, said Jeff McCracken, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.

"The water that fell in April went through the system, but was not water that could be available to irrigators," McCracken said. "Normally, it would have been absorbed in some of the springs north of Upper Klamath Lake.

"But it was so dry, the third straight dry year. The forecast was changed to meet reality. The extra water did not show up."

Now the designation is back to "dry," which leaves more water for project irrigators.

But it's still not enough.

The Tulelake Irrigation District and Westside Improvement District, only two of 21 irrigation districts within the project, have been using the 10 wells drilled by the California Office of Emergency Services.

The Crawfords don't have private water wells, but many other irrigators do, and are operating them at their own expense. They are depending on them to keep their crops alive.

"This is being done as a sacrifice by irrigators," Keppen said. "It's quite a testament."

Potato and onion grower Dan Chin is supplementing his irrigation needs by using five wells that he either owns or co-owns.

Keppen said he would travel to Salem this week to seek compensation from the state for growers who have been compelled to pump water on their lands.

"We're looking for ways to compensate irrigators," Keppen said.

But for many growers, including Chin, they are more than halfway through the irrigation season. Chin is gearing up to begin harvesting his potatoes next month, and his onions in September.

Still, the lifestyle John Crawford cherishes is threatened, he said. The complete shutoff of water two years ago was a betrayal, Crawford said.

"We watched it with disbelief," he said. "I hold no animosity for the Bureau of Reclamation, they were just the messengers. It was the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service who wrote and administered the biological opinions.

"What I did in Vietnam takes a back seat to the veterans of World War I and World War II who came to homestead the land. They were promised water forever.

"We've invested a fortune in time and effort to carry a message to the people of this country," Crawford said. "I've gone to Washington, D.C. to get congressional representatives to see that there is no need to cut back on water supplies to farmers.

"And, if it's true that salmon and suckers need higher levels of water, then we need to see to what extent the Klamath Project is responsible."