Klamath Water Users Association

Letter from Dan Keppen to
BOR Manager Dave Sabo



May 20, 2003


Mr. Dave Sabo

Manager, Klamath Basin Area Office

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

6600 Washburn Way

Klamath Falls, Oregon 97603

Re: Administration of 2003 Klamath Project Water Bank

Dear Mr. Sabo:

It is our understanding that, just one month after the 2003 Klamath Project (Project) Operations plan was released, tribal interests in the lower Klamath Basin are pursuing efforts to change the way the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) will manage 50,000 acre-feet (AF) of water developed through the 2003 Project water bank. The Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) discussed this issue extensively at its May 2003 Board of Directors meeting, and directed me to advise Reclamation of our very serious concerns regarding this unsettling development.


As you know, approximately 30,000 AF of the total water bank, generated through voluntary efforts by Project irrigators to idle land or pump groundwater in place of using Project water, was proposed in last month’s operations plan to be used in April and May. According to Dave Hillmeier, Yurok Tribe biologist, the purpose of the higher spring flows was to inundate riparian edgewater habitat, which the Yuroks and others deem essential for the successful rearing of salmon fry. With the recent high inflows and surging Klamath River flows resulting from a very wet spring, it is our understanding that downstream tribes are proposing new management options, including rescheduling water bank flows for use later in the summer.

NOAA Fisheries officials provided the water bank flow requirements that were included in Reclamation’s operations plan released in early April. That flow schedule provided for high spring flows, and elevated, but lower flows in the fall. It is our understanding that the tribes were requested to assist in the development of the original flow schedule that would "shape" the 50,000 AF, and apparently declined. The new schedule they advocate would essentially take the water bank flows that would have been used in April and May and "save" those flows for use in late summer months.

KWUA Concerns

As you know, we have consistently emphasized that the Klamath Project water bank should only be implemented in drier years, when one would expect competing demands for irrigation and environmental water to occur. This year’s water bank project was rolled out at a time when dry year conditions were predicted, to general agreement that the bank could help buffer potential conflicts in this year type. When KWUA and irrigation district representatives met with you prior to the release of the 2003 operations plan, we clearly stated our concern that the water bank be managed as proposed in Table 5 of that plan. Even before the recent wet weather arrived, we were concerned that downstream interests would attempt to change the rules in a way that could lead to another late-summer conflict between farmers, tribes and the national wildlife refuges.

One month into this year’s irrigation season, it appears that discussions to re-manage the water bank are already happening. If the water that flowed downstream in April and May is used in-lieu of the original water bank commitment, and those flows are now "reserved" for use later in the year, a dangerous precedent will be set. More importantly, shifting a new, higher demand to later in the year may lead to an unnecessary water conflict. The following further elaborates our concerns.

Re-setting the Water Bank Hydrograph Sets a Poor Precedent for Future Water Banks

Resetting the water bank after the intended flow condition has been satisfied sets a poor precedent for future administration of the water bank, a program that is already being criticized by some in our community. If NOAA Fisheries establishes a new flow schedule that essentially "resets" the water bank budget for this year once it realizes that those flows were achieved through hydrologic conditions, what is to stop federal agencies from simply carrying over the entire water bank to the following year when wetter-than-predicted conditions occur?

Our concern for this type of problem is borne out of recent experience. Last year, Yurok Tribes biologists/spokespersons advocated for a similar approach when they eyed water remaining in Gerber and Clear Lakes after the irrigation season ended (water intended for 2003 irrigation operations) as potential water that could be used in later months for mainstem Klamath flow enhancement.

Re-writing the rules one month into this year’s operations will send the wrong message to our local community and could hamper your efforts to recruit Project irrigators to participate in future water bank efforts.

Questionable Authority to Implement a New Hydrograph

Where in the 2003 Klamath Project Operations Plan does is specify that NOAA Fisheries or Reclamation can replace Table 5 with a new distribution of the 50,000 AF water bank?

Creating Another Conflict

Increasing downstream demands later this year sets the stage for another water conflict this fall. Granted, this spring’s weather has resulted in reduced demand for Project water for irrigation purposes. The national wildlife refuges are also brimming over with water. However, later this summer, as Upper Klamath Lake levels begin to drop and rigid downstream Iron Gate Dam flow targets remain in place, a call for additional water bank flows could stretch available supplies. We are particularly concerned that the national wildlife refuges – whose current abundant supplies will diminish by September - may face cutbacks if additional stored water is sent downstream.

Intuitively, it would appear that favorable, wet weather would work to our benefit. Instead, downstream advocates for higher flows appear to be assessing an opportunity to erase whatever cushion we may have gained in the past month to set up a potential "train wreck" – their term, not ours - later this year.

Changing the Hydrograph Creates New Uncertainty for Irrigators

From a Project irrigator’s perspective, the current operations paradigm is uncertain enough already. Our local irrigators – even with annual operations plans in place – have virtually no certainty that water supplies will be provided for the full season, regardless of the water year type. Because certainty of water supplies is directly related to one’s ability to secure financing for farming operations, there is an increasing sense of instability in the farming community. This is primarily due to the fact that – because of the rigid lake level and river flow requirements imposed by the agency biological opinions – Project irrigators and the national wildlife refuges get the water that’s "left over". Should unexpected hydrology or downstream tribal trust calls occur and lake and/or river levels cannot be met, deliveries to the Project are simply curtailed. Shifting the spring hydrograph demand to later in the year just adds another alleged demand to the mix and a whole new level of uncertainty for our irrigators.

We have serious policy and legal objections to the philosophy of the operations plans, that threaten these drastic outcomes, but it becomes still more troubling when such outcomes are actively promoted.


Consider the Alternative

The April-May hydrograph requirements have been satisfied. What if downstream flows and lake levels could not be met under a different weather scenario? Would the tribes, USFWS and NOAA Fisheries have allowed Project deliveries to continue if flows and lake levels could not be met? We have seen no indication in the past several years of any such inclination. Yet now, consideration is being given to place additional demand on Project supplies later this year, when those supplies are even more essential to finishing out crops and saving investments.

Facts, Not Rhetoric, Should Drive Decision-Making

Reclamation and other federal agencies need to take a hard, clear-eyed look at what happened last fall when 33,000 dead fish turned up on the lower Klamath River. The recent advocacy for a new management scheme for the water bank flows apparently originates from the traditional advocates of high mainstem Klamath River flows who quickly concluded last fall that the fish die-off was due in large part to Klamath Project operations. This, despite the fact that the fish died below the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers, 200 miles downstream of the Klamath Project. In the wake of the unfortunate fish die-off, these same interests employed a variety of aggressive tactics aimed at Project farmers and ranchers and your agency. You are keenly aware of the following argument has overwhelmed public dialogue since last fall:

  • "Fish need water"
  • In 2001, the Klamath Irrigation Project did not get water, and no large fish die-offs were reported.
  • In 2002, Project irrigators received water and fish died.
  • The Secretary of Interior sacrificed the fish; Reclamation was wrong.

We will soon release a detailed report that exposes the weaknesses in the very foundation of this argument. We hope it sheds more light on the subject than the series of press releases condemning our community for what it has done (irrigating Project lands) in 96 of the last 97 years. In the meantime, we urge that you resist emotion-driven arguments, and instead rely on level-headed, scientific reasoning to drive decisions that help Klamath River coho.

Higher Summer Flows Can Hurt the Fish

The wisdom of providing higher summer flows is questioned by other interests, including the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Klamath fishes, in an interim report released one year ago. We are concerned that a repeat of the disaster that occurred in 1994 will occur. That year, despite warnings from KWUA biologists, federal agencies increased summer flows, which prematurely attracted fall-run chinook salmon to an upper area of the river where natural conditions were hostile to their health. The net result of the increased flows during late August of that year could have ultimately been detrimental to 1994 fall-run Chinook in the Klamath River.

Need for Specific Justification

Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries must insist on very specific biologic rational to justify any tribal requests to change the hydrograph shape; this is the only way we will get these issues resolved.


Like federal agencies charged with Klamath Basin water management tasks, our community also felt the brunt of the political exploitation that followed the 2002 fish die-off. However, decision-making this year should not be driven by fear of similar, and repeated, political reprisals. You can rest assured that this pressure will continue from long-term advocates of higher Klamath River flows. We can only ask that Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries keep their heads above the political fray, and make management decisions this year that are backed by science and that do not set dangerous precedent for future operations.

We recommend that any decision to re-manage the water bank hydrograph be delayed until the final NRC Committee report is released this summer.

The decision of whether or not to abandon the flow schedule proposed last month will be closely monitored by our community. I look forward to discussing this with you further at your convenience.



Dan Keppen

Executive Director

Cc: Jim Lecky, NOAA Fisheries

KBC Home



Klamath Water Users Association
2455 Patterson Street, Suite 3
Klamath Falls, Oregon 97603
(541)-883-6100 FAX (541)-883-8893 kwua@cdsnet.net


Content and Logo: Copyright © Klamath Water Users Association, 2002 All Rights Reserved
Page design: Copyright ©  klamathbasincrisis.org,   2002,  All Rights Reserved