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Water cutoff looms over Basin

Officials scrambling to avoid shutdown of Klamath Project

published July 3, 2003

Herald and News: Klamath Falls, Oregon

Farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project faced new threats of a water cutoff this week as federal officials warned the water level in Upper Klamath Lake is falling too fast to meet requirements of a plan for protecting endangered suckers.

Federal officials met this morning to consider ways to avert a shutdown of most of the Klamath Reclamation Project, but no conclusion was an-nounced by press time.

"We're continuing to work toward some resolution where we can work things out," said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Among the options being considered was changing the classification of the current water season from "below average" to "dry." Doing so would ease the legal requirements for protecting suckers, but create uncertainty over legal issues.

Project irrigators who rely on Upper Klamath Lake were told Wednesday that, under current conditions, they must immediately cut their use of water by a third, or face a complete shutdown of the project later in the month.

Farmers responded by saying there is no practical way to reduce water use by a third now that summer irrigation is at its peak.

"This is production agriculture. You can't just shut off a potato field," said Bob Gasser, a chemical dealer who works closely with farmers. "If you miss an irrigation by three or four days, you can lose half the value of the crop."

About 180,000 acres of land in the Klamath Project relies primarily on Upper Klamath Lake as an irrigation reservoir. The acreage includes some of the region's most fertile lands, as well as hundreds of small farms and suburban parcels.

The news of a looming water cutoff was delivered to farmers Wednesday during a hastily planned meeting among government officials, irrigators, Indian tribes and political leaders. The meeting, which was not announced to the media or the public, was held at the Shilo Inn in Klamath Falls.

Steve Thompson, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, presided. About 50 people participated.

During the meeting, a chart was distributed showing how much farmers must curtail their water use in order to stretch dwindling supplies last through the month. That chart indicated water supplies could last through the month if water use is cut by roughly a third beginning Friday.

If demand is not reduced, that farmers' share of remaining water would run out well before the end of July, the chart indicated.

Driving the need to conserve water is a minimum water level established to protect endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers in Upper Klamath Lake. A federal plan for protecting the fish calls for a minimum lake level of 4,140.70 on July 31.

Irrigation diversions from the lake and from the Klamath River were estimated this week at 1,580 cubic feet per second. At that rate, farmers would receive about 3,100 acre-feet, or 1 billion gallons per day.

The reduction called for Wednesday would reduce the diversion to 1,060 cfs, or 683 million gallons per day.

After Wednesday's meeting, Thompson said he was hopeful a solution would be reached, though he said there is little time.

"I feel good that we got the major issues aired out, and we got some good ideas from people in the room," said Thompson, whose office is in Sacramento. "I'm very concerned that we won't be able to move fast enough to make a difference."

Among the options being considered is additional use of wells to boost water supplies, and providing financial incentives for farmers to reduce their water use, Thompson said.

City Editor Todd Kepple can be reached at 885-4422, (800) 275-0982, or by e-mail at tkepple@heraldandnews.com.

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