Farmers offered cash to idle land, tap wells


The Oregonian

Federal water managers will pay farmers in the Klamath Project $4 million to idle farmland and irrigate their crops from wells this summer, leaving water in Upper Klamath Lake for protected fish.

Farmers who do not take the offer could still end up short of water in what is becoming a very dry year.

The Endangered Species Act requires specific amounts of water to aid endangered lake fish called suckers and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River. In the dry summer of 2001, such wildlife demands left little water for farmers in the federal Klamath Project, and many watched their crops wither.

This year is looking just as dry, with the mountains ringing the Klamath Basin holding barely half their typical moisture.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will begin taking applications today for a federally funded "water bank" that is one element of a Bush administration plan to ease competition for Klamath's water supply. The bank will compensate farmers to not use water, freeing it for needs such as supporting protected fish.

Federal officials will offer farmers $187.50 an acre to leave farmland dry, said Dave Sabo, manager of the Klamath Project. The amount is roughly similar to the revenue farmers could expect for each acre of a standard crop such as alfalfa. Officials expect to sign up about 12,000 acres.

Some farmers could also receive supplemental funds from other agencies to plant cover crops for wildlife, Sabo said.

The bureau will also offer farmers with wells $50 an acre foot -- a unit of water equal to 326,000 gallons -- to pump water onto their fields rather than irrigating from project canals that draw water from Upper Klamath Lake.

"We're trying to minimize the amount of land that relies on Upper Klamath Lake for water," Sabo said.

Farmers will have until the end of the week to sign up for the program, which was delayed while officials waited for Congress to pass a federal budget.

Together, the land-idling and well-pumping will cost about $4 million and should allow 20,000 to 25,000 acres within the project to go without irrigation water from the lake, Sabo said. That will reduce the farmland dependent on lake water by about 15 percent and cut the project's water use by about 50,000 acre-feet -- about 15 percent of its demand in a dry year.

Federal biologists have mandated that a water bank supply at least 50,000 acre-feet for species needs this year. Next year, the required amount jumps to 75,000 acre-feet.

The water bank measures are solely to meet endangered species requirements for water and do not guarantee the more than 1,000 project farms will not face cutbacks in supply if the year remains dry, Sabo said. Supplies of snow in the mountains remain so slim they will probably melt by April, rather than providing steady runoff through June as usual.

"The project could still face shortages because of drought conditions," he said.

Sabo said he expects enough farmers will idle their land or shift to well water to meet the water bank goals. Many are already concerned that drought conditions may leave the project short of water toward the end of the summer and may opt for the certain revenue provided by the water bank.

"I think we'll have a lot of people interested in a bird in the hand," he said.

Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users Association said farmers are disappointed that even with the water bank in place, they have no assurances of continued water for those who do not sign up to idle their land or use well water. Farmers have pushed the Bush administration for such assurances.

"If the water's shut off and some people have gotten compensation while others take a hit by going without water, it'll be a disaster," he said.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689;


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