Klamath farmers retool acreage, but risks of water shortage persist

The Oregonian

KLAMATH FALLS -- In the glaring sun just south of the Oregon-California line, farmer Scott Seus watches tractors equipped with lasers and satellite receivers level his fields as flat as a pool table.

Grading so precisely lets water flow across the land without pooling, assuring every plant just enough -- without waste. Irrigation is faster and less frequent, and Seus can recapture what he uses and recycle it to irrigate a second time.

But it may not be enough. Despite millions of dollars worth of such irrigation upgrades across the basin, the creation of new wetlands to aid endangered species and the recent surprise of substantial rains, Seus and other farmers still don't know whether they will get enough water to keep their crops green.

Federal dams built to keep farms green even in drought are now ruled by endangered species considerations. And a federal judge this week appears poised to rule that protected salmon in the Klamath River need more water, probably leaving still less for farmers.
Many farmers opted in March to idle some cropland in exchange for $187.50 an acre from the government to free water as part of a federal "water bank" to irrigate the rest.

That level of payment is less than they would earn by working the field. But it sounded good just a few months ago, when things looked as dry as the devastating drought of 2001, the year federal officials halted irrigation to more than 1,000 basin farms and kept it for protected fish. Copious rains followed.

"That's the frustration in this water deal," said Dan Chin, who agreed to idle about 250 acres. "It's impossible to plan ahead."

More than 600 farmers have applied for shares of $50 million in new federal cash to install irrigation equipment that will make the most of every drop. Farmers and other landowners are restoring wildlife habitat across the basin, including wetlands to cleanse dirtied water. And there are promising signs for the endangered lake fish called suckers that suffered as the government replumbed the basin for agriculture.
"Everybody knows we're in a critical situation," said farmer Mike Byrne. "People never thought they'd take our water away. Now we know they will. Everybody is in the mood to do the most conservation they can do."

Given the April rains and water banked when Chin and others idled their land, federal officials say farmers should squeak through the summer with enough water.

Ruling expected soon But a ruling expected any day on a lawsuit by downstream fishermen, tribes and environmental groups could suddenly cut them back. And because the year has proved wetter than expected, federal water managers this week will switch to a new schedule that keeps more water in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River for fish.

That will leave less for crops, although they typically need less in a wet year.

"If there's more water, you'd think there'd be more balance, but it actually tilts the opposite way," said Chin, a third-generation farmer whose grandfather started his small potato packing shed south of Klamath Falls.

"Us farmers, we like to see green, growing fields," he said. "That's what we reap our benefit from."

Tags on sacks of potatoes rolling off the conveyors advertise a contest for family trips to Crater Lake. Chin hopes the drawing will catch the eyes of shoppers and let them know Klamath farms are back in business.

Out in the fields, efficiency rules. The less water farmers use, the less they will compete with fish for it, and the less electricity they will burn to pump it. Power costs will multiply as much as tenfold when 50-year-old price controls expire in 2006.

Grants pay for upgrades Federal grants will pay for 75 percent of upgrades such as shifting from flood irrigation, which swamps fields with water, to sprinklers, which usually swallow less by applying it more carefully. It also will pay to tune up pumps, making sure they are slurping the most water for the least cost.

At the urging of Oregon lawmakers, Congress directed the $50 million to the basin through 2007 for such conversions.

Field leveling has produced "phenomenal" crops for Seus with fewer pesticides. Seus and his father, Monte, hope it will help them grow organic hay.

"We know our future depends on how efficient our system is and how well we use our water," Seus said.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is doling out the $50 million, expects to upgrade the irrigation of about 137,000 acres. Service Chief Bruce Knight has pledged that every useful project will get financing. All told, the upgrades could ultimately cut the water needs of the 220,000 acre Klamath Project on the California-Oregon line by perhaps a quarter or more.

"The financial assistance is the only thing that makes it possible for many of these guys to do this, because they're so strapped after 2001,' said Gene Kelly, the service's district conservationist in Tulelake, Calif. "By the time we're done, we'll have some solutions to the problems in the basin."

Downstream tribes concerned But far below the Klamath Basin on the Klamath River, the forecast is not as rosy. Downstream tribes watched salmon die at a record pace in a shrunken river last fall after federal officials diverted a full water supply to farmers.

The federal Klamath Project will leave too little water for fish again this year, they say. And federal payment for idling land "perpetuates the welfare scenario for farmers," said Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, which holds a ranking claim to the water and whose culture depends on Klamath River salmon.

"It's very distasteful to us when they're paying junior water users for water that's still inadequate to meet our needs," he said.
North of Klamath Falls, the Klamath Tribes once relied on now-endangered suckers for food. They remain in negotiations with the Interior Department for the return of 690,000 acres of their one-time reservation, now national forest. Their high card in the talks is a dominant claim to virtually all the water that flows into Upper Klamath Lake.

They want to use the water to help suckers recover. They have suffered massive die-offs caused by the decay of algae blooms in Upper Klamath Lake.

Advice on returning the Native American lands is expected to be among a list of recommendations a Cabinet-level task force will forward to President Bush in September.

Farmers urged screens Farmers had long urged certain measures to aid suckers, including screens to keep irrigation intakes from pulling the fish out of the lake. Now Slayden Construction of Stayton is finishing a $16 million screen at the entrance of the A Canal, where desperate farmers protested and illegally pried open canal headgates two summers ago.

Crews built the federally funded screen in the turbocharged time of about eight months.

Water flows quietly through the automated structure, the size of a railroad boxcar on its side. Two walls of metal mesh in the shape of a V funnel any fish in the water into a pipeline that reverses course and spits them back into the lake.

A check of the canal below the screen turned up no fish. It even filtered out a mink. Workers watched as the befuddled mammal popped up in the lake, "shook its head and swam off," said Cecil Lesley, chief of land and water operations for the Klamath Project.

Steps to assist the fish extend to the upper reaches of the Sprague River, a main tributary to Upper Klamath Lake and spawning habitat for the protected fish. With help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, landowners such as Dan and Kathy Ridgeway are constructing new wetlands that will store and filter water like a giant sponge.

"I saw where the basin was going to run out of water, that my neighbors were going to run out of places for cattle, that they couldn't grow spuds," said Dan Ridgeway, who began planning the project five years ago.

Wildlife returning After halting cattle grazing and less than a year of opening new wetlands along the river, the Ridgeways are seeing wildlife such as yellow-headed blackbirds, osprey white-faced ibis and others that were rare visitors before.

They hope to see newborn suckers and other fish taking refuge in the shallows, too.

"I want there to be hundreds of thousands of suckers here, because that means they'll be in good shape, and this basin will be in better shape because of it," Dan Ridgeway said.

Along the Williamson River, another tributary to the lake, John Crandall may be seeing signs of that recovery.

Early developers confined the meandering river to straight channels to make more room for farming, drying the vast wetlands that extended in all directions each spring. With money from the Fish and Wildlife Service and other sources, The Nature Conservancy bought much of that land and -- as a trial -- two years ago tore down dikes holding back a short stretch of river.

What had been a bend in the river is now awash in shallow water and thick with new reeds and willows. Crandall, a Nature Conservancy fisheries ecologist, also is finding it thick with baby suckers that formerly had no such shelter along the river's linear shores.

Fish a good sign Although newborn suckers drifting down the river by the millions are little more than wisps with eyes, those Crandall finds in the fledgling wetland are bigger, stronger and have food in their tiny bellies.

It's a strong sign the fish are hovering in the riverside wetland, gaining strength to better fend for themselves once they reach the lake. Without it, they may be far more likely to perish in the stomachs of predators.

With it, they may be more likely to survive and add to the imperiled population of adult fish.

Water in the shallow wetland is comfortably warmer, probably nurturing fish like an aquatic incubator.

"Where would you want to be if you were a sucker growing up?" said Crandall, watching young fish dart about. "The answer is here, no question."

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com


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