$50 million Klamath deal in works

By TAM MOORE Capital Press Staff Writer


KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – Farmers this week began putting priorities on water conservation practices aimed to reduce irrigation water use in the Klamath Basin.

“The Bureau (of Reclamation) is dealing with evaluation of the (distribution) system; we are trying to deal with on-farm demand,” said Gene Kelley of the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service.

There’s $50 million in the 2002 farm bill for Klamath area on-farm conservation practices, most of it concentrated on the 240,000 acres of cropland within the BuRec Klamath Project. Kelley told the first meeting of a farmer “work group” that will advise on priorities and approved practices that NRCS will also offer assistance to farmers on the Scott and Shasta rivers, Klamath tributaries in California’s Siskiyou County, and to the two remaining irrigated farms on the upper Trinity River, the Klamath’s major tributary.

Boosting irrigation efficiency and fallowing land will reduce diversions in a basin that often has below-average precipitation. Two years ago, BuRec delivered next to no water in the Klamath Project, and this year a massive fish kill was blamed on disease that spread like wildfire in warm waters of the lower river (see story on page 4).

If Congress takes up the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s appropriation bill in early January, the Klamath conservation money could start flowing for construction and crop decisions during the winter season.

Here’s what NRCS is fine-tuning with the help of an 11-member committee:

n Incentive payments for irrigation system retrofits and for contracting to join a three -year irrigation water management program.

n Water demand reduction and crop priority practices that, depending on location, could be either rotation of ground from cropland to wetland and fallow, or combination of dryland crop and fallow rotations.

n Offer 75 percent cost-share for new irrigation systems based on a net farm water savings, such as conversion of flood to sprinkler, replacement of wheel lines with low-pressure pivot systems.

“The challenge is how to show farmers have conserved water. ... They are still saying we use too much water,” said Rick Woodley, a farmer and manager of the local soil and water conservation district.

Glen Lorenzen, who uses wells for irrigation water and has three decades of experience improving his system’s efficiency, said he doesn’t want the government rewarding growers who don’t maintain their systems through regular maintenance.

The committee agreed that as part of any irrigation improvement contract, farmers will be required to attend instruction on system management and use of monitoring equipment. Kelley said measuring devices will be part of any improvements.

Officials at the meeting estimated that a small percentage of the acreage participating in conservation programs will sign up for demand reduction and crop priority projects.

But Sid Staunton, a Tulelake farmer, said those who do participate will be significant if their experience is similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service experiment on rotating land in and out of wetlands.

He described a Staunton Farm plot leased from USFWS that was flooded through three summers; the first year back to crops, pesticide costs were down 50 percent and yields increased 20 percent.

“I’ve been in conservation all my life,” said Kelley, who also farms in the Butte Valley of Siskiyou County. “When it makes economic sense, you reach into your pocket and do it.”

NRCS offices on both sides of the Oregon-California border are accepting proposals for water conservation projects.

When the work group completes its review, and Congress gets those budget bills moving, NRCS says folks in the Klamath Basin seem ready to go to work.


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