Drought Dread Rises in Klamath

(Note: There'd be no need for dread if only the sweeping -- and false -- pronouncements of such as Orcutt and the Woods and Paces were not taken seriously by Department of Interior agencies. The farmers themselves have offered solutions, such as the Barnes Ranch, for a 'water bank,' but those with agendas that would have farming in the Klamath Basin become a forgotten page in a history book, shout down the facts: water is used 7-9 times before being returned to the rivers and reservoir. No, having the Barnes Ranch won't solve all the problems, but it is a starting point. There is less evaporation when water is used for irrigation than there is when it remains in the reservoir, where surface evaporation is much higher. The farmers and their compassion were what finally gave the wildlife at the refuges water -- the very groups that masquerade as 'environmentalists' were gleefully willing to cause the decimation of the refuges in order to get the farmland for bargain basement prices. They didn't get it all in 2001, so they've come back to 'finish the job.' Don't kid yourself, dear reader, Gang Green harbors no kind feelings toward wildlife. Those farmers that have lived in the Basin for many decades can vouch for the destruction that has been wrought by the lawsuit-threatening landgrabbing agenda that covets total control of the Basin and the removal of all working-class, resource providing land and water stewards from it, even though it kills and puts in harms' way the birds and wildlife whose 'protection and restoration' are the false bill of goods being sold.)

February 21, 2003

By Michael Milstein

The Oregonian

Portland, Oregon




To submit a Letter to the Editor: letters@news.oregonian.com

Klamath Falls, Oregon - Farmer Bill Heiney, who grows peppermint, grain and other crops in the Klamath Project just south of the Oregon-California line, is plenty worried about the water missing from the mountains upstream.

They hold barely half their average moisture for this time of year. That's scarcely more than they did at this point in 2001, the drought year when federal agencies cut off irrigation water to Heiney and his fellow farmers.

It means Klamath Basin farms could face more crippling water cutbacks this summer.

But Heiney is also worried about the lack of water downstream in Northern California. More than 33,000 salmon and other fish went belly-up there in the low, warm flows of the Klamath River late last summer.

The fish died in a stretch fed by both the Upper Klamath, in Oregon, and the Trinity River, a colder mountain stream emerging from California. While the Klamath is aching for water this year, the Trinity is one of the few waterways in the West loaded with it.

But little of that plentiful water may run down the Trinity this year, because of a court order directing much of it to California's Central Valley. And that may leave parched Klamath Basin farmers such as Heiney stuck.

"Absolutely, I think there will be a lot more pressure on the Klamath if you can't release water from the Trinity," said Dave Sabo, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation manager in Klamath Falls. "We're really caught."

It's an ominous one-two punch for Klamath Basin farmers. They face their third dry year in a row, with no lasting relief from the endangered species demands that led federal agencies to reserve irrigation water for protected fish two years ago. Although the Bush administration supplied farmers with all the water they needed last year, bitter fallout from the subsequent fish kill, compounded by this year's dryness and the shorting of Trinity water, makes the picture much cloudier for 2003.

"There is this huge diversion of water from the Trinity, and we're being looked at to subsidize that loss," said Heiney, whose eyes still well up over the loss of his crops in 2001. "To be held responsible for all that is ridiculous."

If irrigation water runs short this summer, it could revive the anger that surrounded the 2001 water cutoff. That anger surfaced again and again in protests in which farmers illegally pried open the head gates of the federal Klamath Project. And farms that limped through may not survive another summer like that, said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

"I'm afraid some guys will feel like they have nothing more to lose," he said.

Decision due in April The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will decide in early April -- when runoff rates are more certain -- how much water the more than 1,000 farms in the Klamath Project will get this summer. The amount will depend on whether the year is classified as "dry," "critically dry" or another category, each with specific water demands for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake above the project and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River below.

Many farmers already feel they are under unfair pressure to yield water to the protected fish, while environmental groups contend farmers have dominated the basin's waters for too long.

More than twice the average precipitation would have to fall in the next two months to push water levels anywhere close to normal. Weather records do not show that happening before.

"It's looking pretty grim, to be honest," Sabo said.

Reclamation officials have ordered project farmers to identify at least 12,000 acres the federal agency can pay to take out of production under a "water bank" plan to save 50,000 acre-feet of water -- about 10 percent of the yearly water demand. That should leave enough water for farms to begin irrigating at the start of the growing season in April, Sabo said.

But there still may not be enough to last through the summer. Season-end cutbacks similar to what project farmers endured in the dry years of 1992 and 1994 are possible, Sabo said. And if the drought worsens to the point protected fish are not ensured the water biologists say they need, so is a complete irrigation shutoff.

"If we start impacting flow levels required for the species, I'll have to consider turning off the project," Sabo said.

More water, but not for farms An irony of the distribution plan devised last year by the Bush administration is that in wetter years, with more water on hand, more water must be set aside for protected fish. But in the driest years, biologists have mandated less water for fish. So a year such as this one that is shaping up as dry -- but not extraordinarily so -- may leave less water for farmers than would the very driest summers.

"It is hard for guys to understand that when there's more water, it doesn't necessarily mean things will be any better," Keppen said.

That's also true of the Trinity River, which along with Oregon's Klamath Basin feeds the lower Klamath -- a vital reach for salmon and center of the fish kill that last summer turned into the worst die-off of adult fish in the nation's history.

Chinook salmon were the main species affected, with hundreds of threatened coho also dying. While chinook are not an endangered species, downriver Native American tribes consider healthy fisheries among their tribal treaty rights and insist the Bush administration do all it can to avoid a repeat of the disaster this year. Most of all, the tribes want more water in the river.

But the options are limited by a federal court order in a case brought by Central California's Westlands Water District, the nation's largest and possibly most politically powerful irrigation district.

As much as 90 percent of the water from the Trinity River has historically been diverted through massive tunnels south to Central California irrigators, including Westlands. When the Clinton administration decided in 2000 to reduce diversions and leave more water in the Trinity, Westlands and California utility companies borrowed an argument commonly employed by environmental groups and claimed the impacts of the shift were not fully considered.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger agreed and blocked the decision. He limited flows down the Trinity to no more than what the Clinton plan calls for in dry years. That keeps more water flowing to Central California and Westlands, now trying to engineer a massive federal buyout of poorly drained farmland laced with toxic minerals.

Tribes appeal ruling So while this year looks to be a wet year in the Trinity, the river itself will carry no more water than it would in a dry year.

The Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes of Northern California have appealed Wanger's ruling and urged Interior Secretary Gale Norton to do the same. Although Norton and the Bush administration have so far backed the Clinton boost to Trinity flows, they have not yet decided whether they will join the tribes in an appeal.

When the fish kill struck last year, the court lockdown of the Trinity led the administration to flush extra water out of the Klamath Basin instead.

It's unclear whether that water helped ease the die-off, and tribal biologists say fish need water from both tributaries.

"The perception that the Trinity will solve the problems of the Klamath is not right," said Hoopa Valley tribal biologist Mike Orcutt. "There should be more water in the Trinity. But the bottom line for the Klamath is that there will always be drought conditions because people are using too much water."

Up toward Klamath Falls, Heiney and other farmers fear drought and the court order may again leave them without enough.

"If we at least know how much water we're going to have, we can prepare for it," said Heiney, who is preparing to send his oldest daughter to college. "But we need to know."