KLAMATH: Road map to a train wreck

By Kehn Gibson, Tri-County Courier
as published in The Sierra Times

7/7/03

Klamath, Oregon - If Klamath Basin farmers pray for rain ó a traditional picture ó the new moisture could act to shut the entire Klamath Project down.
That was the message Monday as irrigators and Bureau of Reclamation officials met to develop strategies to meet target levels in Upper Klamath Lake as defined by the Bureauís 10-year operations plan.

The levels, measured in feet above sea level, are set when the Klamath Falls office of the Bureau determines water year type. That determination is based on projected inflows into the lake.

Initially, the Bureau labeled 2003 a "dry" year, requiring the level of Upper Klamath Lake to be no lower than 4,141.5 at midnight on June 30. However, heavy mountain snows and about 3 inches of rain in the Klamath Falls area in April and May increased the inflows into the lake, and on June 13 the Bureau upgraded the water year to "below average."

That increased the required lake level on June 30 to 4,142.1, meaning about 40,000 acre-feet of water must remain in the lake. It also increased the amount of water the Bureau had to release downstream to aid migrating salmon.

Seven days later, the Bureau realized they had a problem.

Inflows from the April snows had dropped drastically. Bureau projections showed the lake would end June an inch below the required level.

On June 20, Bureau officials asked irrigators to reduce water deliveries by 400 acre-feet per day. By June 24, irrigators had reduced their deliveries by nearly 1,600 acre-feet per day, and the Tulelake Irrigation District began pumping wells drilled in 2001.

Although irrigators had idled nearly 17,000 acres of cropland and had voluntarily reduced water deliveries, on June 25 the Bureau told irrigators the Project would have to shut down until July 1 to meet the required lake level.

The decision was amended by that afternoon, after calls to White House officials ó who were unaware of the plan to shut down the Project ó led to a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing Dave Sabo, the Bureauís Klamath Project manager, to go below the lake level set for June.

The letter applies only to the June level, and hydrologists said Monday the July level will be reached by July 11.

"We are moving into the base flow period," said Paul Cleary, head of the Oregon Water Resources Department and a participant in Mondayís meeting. "All the tributaries are down to their August lows."

Cleary said the Williamson River, one of the three main tributaries that feed Upper Klamath Lake, had dropped from 1,150 cubic feet per second to 504 cubic feet per second.

The apparent inflexibility of the plan frustrated irrigators.

"Irrigators have conserved water and we are being faced with a shut off because of it," said Gary Wright, a Tulelake rancher.

Sabo said he cannot readjust the water year type until a new projection of inflows is completed.

"Those criteria are set," Sabo said. "All I can do now is follow those parameters."

Cecil Lesley, a Bureau operations manager, told irrigators work is underway on developing a new inflow projection for July, but cautioned it would probably not be completed by July 11. Lesley also said a "significant rain event" would not help.

"If it rains hard in the middle of July, we would probably have to shut the Project down for the rest of the season," Lesley said. "We are in a situation where we have to go month by month."

The Bureauís Bob Davis said the current situation in the Klamath Basin was not foreseen by planners.

"It wasnít part of the thinking then, and it probably should have been," Davis said. "Iím not saying we get it either, Iím just saying we will work into it."

Dan Keppen, the executive director for the Klamath Water Users, disputes Davisí claim.

"We brought the dangers of stair-stepped lake levels to their attention eight months ago at least," Keppen said. "We have a screwed up paradigm to manage the Project with."

RELATED STORY:

Klamath Project water users get a gift of water

Published July 4, 2003

By ROB McCALLUM

Herald & News Staff Writer

While water levels in Upper Klamath Lake drop and the Bureau of Reclamation warns of irrigation water cutoff, water users on the east side of the Klamath Project have sent a little extra water to their neighbors downstream.

The Horsefly and Langell Valley irrigation districts, supplied by Clear Lake in California and Gerber Reservoir via the Lost River, have released extra return flows - surplus water that's already been run through an irrigation system - into the Klamath Project.

"We had increased return flows, so we decided to help them out," said Langell Valley Irrigation District manager John Nichols. "That's what the Bureau of Reclamation asked for, so we volunteered for it."

Water not needed in Langell Valley goes down the Lost River into the Horsefly District near Bonanza. It then spills over the Harpold Dam and into the main part of the Klamath Project.

"When we increase the return flows," Nichols said, "it in turn increases the flow down the Lost River, and then that water may be supplied to the Klamath Project."

Nichols said that the released water will also recharge wells in the immediate area. East-side irrigation water can also help farmers by flowing into the Klamath River via the Lost River Diversion Channel, keeping downstream flows up.

While the extra water is only a drop in the bucket, Nichols said, every bit helps, especially in a hot, dry summer.

"It's kind of robbing from Peter to pay Paul," Nichols said. "We're doing it in order to avoid lawsuits."

This is not the first time that Eastside irrigation water has been fed into other systems. In the past, it has been fed into the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake wildlife refuges.

"It generally goes for an endangered species issue," Nichols said. "It's hardly used for irrigation purposes. The last time it happened was in a drought when there was no water flowing at all."

Nichols doesn't expect east-side water to go into the Klamath Project for much longer.

"We'll have to start tightening it back up again in order to keep ourselves whole to deliver water to our customers," Nichols said. "We kind of have to stick to that."

While the east side is free of the lake-level problems that nearly shut down the rest of the Klamath Project last week, Gerber Reservoir and Clear Lake will eventually drop to critically low levels.

"Even though the lake level says that there's a lot of water there, most of that goes to evaporation," Nichols said. "Last month was pretty hot and windy, and Clear Lake was made to evaporate water - which is in this case not a good deal."

Reporter Rob McCallum can be reached at 885-4413 or (800) 275-0982, or by e-mail at rmccallum@heraldandnews.com.

 

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