Feds cut water to salmon, tell farmers to conserve

The Associated Press
7/11/02 6:05 PM

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- Less water than predicted is flowing into the main reservoir of the Klamath Reclamation Project, leading the government on Thursday to begin cutting back flows for salmon in the Klamath River and warn farmers they could be next.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called on the 1,400 farms on the 230,000 acres served by the federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border to begin conserving water, warning that they could face cutbacks if the situation gets worse.

Farmers said they expected to be able to conserve enough to get through the year, but conservationists and Indian tribes said the tight supply pointed out the continuing difficulties the Klamath Basin faces in meeting the needs of fish and farms with some kind of major change.

"It's the same issue about putting deliveries for agriculture above the needs for fish," said Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, which has been pressing for more water in the Klamath River to support salmon it harvests on its reservation.

Inflows into Upper Klamath Lake since June 15 have been below estimates from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, forcing a revision in the water year forecast from below-average to dry, the bureau said. Lake level has been dropping half an inch a day.

"We're asking irrigators to conserve as much as they can to continue to provide water for the remainder of the year," said Bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken from his office in Sacramento, Calif.

Steve Kendra, an alfalfa farmer and president of the Klamath Water Users Association, said it appears farmers can get through the year without any water shutoffs.

Some land was not planted in anticipation that water supplies might come up short, Kendra said. Some well water can be put into the system, and farmers can be more careful with what they have.

"The worst thing that can happen now is if everybody panics," said Kendra. "If everybody goes through normal use patterns and is reasonably careful with their water, we should make it through fine."

Though the Klamath Water Users Association continued to oppose taking some farmland out of production to reduce longterm water demand, farmer John Anderson said he thought this latest development would increase support for government buyouts and conservation easements.

"This is just going to be an ongoing battle for us," said Anderson, who doubled his cattle herd and quit growing mint because he expected water would be short. "For the sake of the agricultural community, I think we need to balance demand with supply."

During last summer's drought, the bureau cut off irrigation water to most of the project to meet Endangered Species Act mandates for water to maintain Lost River suckers and shortnosed suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in the Klamath River.

The 2001 cutbacks represented the first time in nearly a century that the needs of fish and Indian tribes with treaty rights to harvest them were put ahead of farmers invited by the government to settle irrigated lands.

The cutbacks triggered tense confrontations between farmers and the federal government, which called in guards to protect the main headgates of the irrigation project from protesters who had forced them open.

The bureau will make good on an extra 20,000 acre feet of water sent down the Klamath River to meet trust obligations to the Hoopa Valley, Karuk and Yurok tribes, McCracken said.

However, flows below Irongate Dam will begin cutting back immediately to conserve water, while meeting minimum flows for a below-average year, McCracken said. Around July 31, flows will be cut back to levels set for a dry year.

Water supplies have been insufficient in five of the past 11 years, illustrating how the resource is overallocated, said Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

Continuing irrigation will put flows in the Klamath River far below those of last year, and leave marshes used by fish and waterfowl in the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and around Upper Klamath Lake high and dry, he added.

Kendra said one reason for the shortfall in the water prediction is that ground that was not irrigated last year soaked up more water this year.

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