Klamath irrigation project facing another short year

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Farmers on the Klamath Reclamation Project straddling the Oregon-California border are facing irrigation cutbacks caused by drought for the third year in a row.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operations plan released Wednesday shows only 61 percent of the water needed for full irrigation is available to the 1,200 farms on the project.

Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association said that even with contracts paying farmers to leave their land idle, and groundwater pumping, the agency will have a tough time meeting all the demand for water this year.

The water outlook has improved since a low point in the winter when water supplies were projected to be just 20 percent of what is needed, Addington said. “But it’s still going to be a long dry summer,” he said.

The bureau noted that snowpack, the primary natural water storage system across the West, was just 31 percent of normal and precipitation was 75 percent of normal. As a result, the Natural Resources Conservation Service forecast flows into Upper Klamath Lake, the irrigation project’s primary reservoir, at 46 percent of average. Two smaller reservoirs serving the project will also be low.

The irrigation cutbacks also mean water shortages for national wildlife refuges that serve waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway.

The Klamath Basin has long struggled to meet all the demands for water. Conflicts hit their peak in 2001, when irrigation was shut off to the bulk of the project to conserve water for endangered fish. The next year, full irrigation was restored, but tens of thousands of salmon died in the lower Klamath River, where flows were warmer and lower than usual. Irrigation was limited in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

Since then farmers, conservation groups, Indian tribes and others have forged an agreement to share scarce water as part of a plan to remove dams to help salmon, but it has been stalled in Congress because of opposition by House Republicans.

During last year’s drought, off-project ranchers in the upper basin saw their irrigation shut off after the Klamath Tribes exercised newly recognized senior water rights to protect endangered fish.

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