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Federal officials lowered the required lake level, freeing more water for farms.

The Associated Press July 12, 2003

PORTLAND - More water from Upper Klamath Lake will be made available to farmers, under an unexpected federal decision handed down this week.

The decision comes just weeks after farmers narrowly dodged a cutoff of water when irrigation demands threatened to drop the lake below the monthly levels required for endangered suckers. That plan was hurriedly reversed after Oregon officials in Washington protested the decision.

The action reflects the precarious balancing act between overlapping demands for limited water in the arid Klamath River Basin, where more than
1,000 farms went without irrigation in 2001.

Upper Klamath Lake, which provides most of the water to farmers in the Klamath Project, must stay at certain levels through the summer to support endangered suckers. Flows out of the lake into the Klamath River also must maintain certain levels for threatened coho salmon.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Thursday changed its "below average" water year classification to "dry." That lowers the required lake level, allowing more water to be used for irrigation.

Critics said the decision could harm fish in the shallow lake, which is subject to overheating and algae blooms.

"It's clearly a political fix," said Glen Spain, regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "They are jiggering a deal to get them out from under any pressure to conserve water."

Reclamation officials said project irrigators have cut water diversions from the lake by an average of 20 percent and will continue to do so through August.

"We're trying to make everybody's crop get by with the least amount of water, and we are running right to the edge," said Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, the project's largest. "This provides some flexibility."

The bureau, in a statement, said its action was based on the latest forecast for flows into the lake by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and information from the Oregon Water Resources Department. Officials couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

Under the "dry" water year classification, rules set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service require the project managers to keep the lake level at
4,140.3 feet above sea level by the end of July. The "below average" classification would have required 4,140.7 feet, about 5 more inches, Solem said.
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