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 Oregon Dept. of Agriculture's "Story of the Week."


Conservation measures help farmers get the most out of every drop of water
Klamath irrigators turn down the faucet


July 16, 2003... Faced with another critical year for water supplies, irrigators in the Klamath Basin continue to conserve the resource in an effort to squeeze every precious drop that has been made available this summer from Upper Klamath Lake. From taking land out of agricultural production to using well water on their own property, farmers in the basin are doing what they can to keep from drawing down lake levels deemed necessary for fish. It's a struggle, but the locals say they need to try.

"We are making every drop of water count and are focused on just trying to get through this year," says Rob Crawford, whose farm straddles the Oregon-California border south of Klamath Falls. Crawford is a member of the Klamath Water Users Association, which has adopted several conservation measures to address dry year conditions which are necessary this year.

While not quite as critical as the summer of 2001 when water from the lake was shut off to some 1,400 irrigators, this year's water levels in the lake have been precariously close to triggering another shutoff. Last week's decision by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) to reclassify the current water year has lowered the required lake level, allowing some water to be used for irrigation. With crops already in the ground and some $200 million invested in seed and other agricultural inputs, the prospect of another shutoff was a blow to every farmer in the basin.

"It has been a season of uncertainty," says Crawford. "A tremendous effort has gone on this year to make sure we would have a water supply for the whole year. Everyone went ahead and planted crops and has worked at conservation from day one. Then, well into our season, came the threat of a total shutoff of water from the lake that dropped on us like a bombshell."

The latest decision to keep the spigot open won't change how agriculture has responded to another near crisis. Irrigators have cut water diversions from the lake by an average of 20% and will continue to do so through August, according to USBR.

Skeptics may say that Klamath irrigators are cutting back dependence on the lake only because of the threat of a total shutoff. However, farmers and ranchers in the basin can point to an impressive display of proactive steps they have taken in the area of conservation and wildlife restoration the past ten years.

A report of activities issued earlier this year by the Klamath Water Users Association claims that nearly 25,000 acres of farmland in the upper basin has been converted to wetlands and other environmental projects in the past decade. That's about 10% of the total acreage served by the Klamath Irrigation Project. Other past efforts include riparian fencing to improve water quality and ecosystem enhancement, fish passage improvement projects, the development of individual water conservation plans for farms and ranches, and the creation of a "water bank" in which the Bureau of Reclamation compensates farmers for changing management practices that leave more water in the lake for environmental purposes. The water bank has been widely used in 2003 after a dry winter portended problems for the irrigation season.

"We began the water year with about 15,000 new acres taken out of production, land that would otherwise produce crops that will receive no water," says Crawford. "The second phase of the water bank has been utilizing groundwater. Farmers have signed up and guaranteed to not divert any Upper Klamath Lake water, but instead use their own wells to provide the water they need. That is another 10,000 to 15,000 acres that will not be drawing down the lake."

These activities create added costs for growers, including pumping and electrical expenses that would not occur under normal water delivery from the irrigation project.

The water bank measures were taken well before the announcement of a potential shutoff to irrigators. Even though the farmers who have signed up are getting payments for either idling their land or using their own wells, it doesn't always cover the costs or the potential payoff of producing a crop.

"It was understood that if we took these measures, there would be more stability in the water situation and we'd make it through the irrigation season," says Crawford.

There is no doubt that the water conservation measures have helped ward off the need for an irrigation shutoff. Uncertainty still "reigns" in the basin, mainly because it rarely "rains" in the basin. The very dry winter left a meager mountain snowpack to feed the streams and rivers that empty into Upper Klamath Lake. However, an unexpected wet spring seemed to throw everyone a curve. Farmers had trouble preparing their fields. Water managers began to assess the upcoming season and, using a complicated formula for required lake levels, settled on a level that would dictate fewer diversions for irrigation. So far, the summer has been hot and dry, as usual. The whole water year has been unstable- a condition normal for an unpredictable region.

If there is one message the irrigators want to emphasize to urban Oregon, it is the concept of coexistence between farmers and the natural habitat of the Klamath Basin.

"Agriculture and wildlife in the basin go hand-in-hand," says Crawford. "Those of us who live and work down here see it every day. It isn't an either-or situation."

The investment of time and resources by the Klamath Water Users Association has not gone unnoticed by state officials. The Oregon Department of Agriculture will be awarding the association an Agricultural Progress Award in September for its efforts in conservation. In a very trying time for a very troubled region of the state, many farmers and ranchers are working to do all they can to stay in business while making the wisest use of a precious commodity in Klamath- water.



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