Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Fighting for Our Right to Irrigate Our Farms and Caretake Our Natural Resources

 Klamath Gates Spill Out Irrigation Water  By Eric Bailey Los Angeles Times Staff Writer,  April 5, 2003
      With a notable absence of celebration, federal water officials cranked open the canal gates Tuesday to begin sending irrigation water to farmers in the Klamath Basin.
      They might as well have been opening another season of discontent.
      Federal officials are walking a fine line between delivering to the farmers and avoiding another huge fish die-off like last year's.
      A coalition of environmentalists, fishermen and Native Americans has warned that fish will again be at risk if farmers get full irrigation deliveries when the basin's water supply stands at little more than half of normal.
      A federal court hearing is set for April 29 in Oakland to decide if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Klamath flows, should stay on its current course or give more water to the fish.
      Since 2001, when the government slashed farmers' supply of irrigation water to ensure the survival of threatened salmon and sucker fish, this rich farm belt on the California-Oregon border has been a flashpoint in an ideological fight over the federal Endangered Species Act.
      Last year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and other top Bush administration officials ceremoniously opened the gates with promises that farmers wouldn't be hit again with a water cutoff. But a public relations nightmare followed later in the year, as 33,000 salmon in the Klamath River succumbed to disease in low river flows.
      Farmers once again expect a full allotment, despite a dry winter in the basin that has left the snow pack critically depleted. But water managers with the Bureau of Reclamation have also set in motion several actions to help the fish.
      The bureau is urging a federal judge to give them flexibility to release more water into the Trinity River, a Northern California tributary that links with the Klamath River about 40 miles from the sea. For years, as much as 90% of the Trinity's flow has been drained for delivery to Central Valley farms, but federal officials hope they can send more water down the river if it's needed to improve conditions for fish in the Klamath's lower reaches.
      Upriver, federal officials also took steps this year to reduce water use with a new program that temporarily retires farm acreage. Called a "water bank," the effort will pay farmers $4 million in exchange for fallowing 16,000 acres in  the basin, where more than 200,000 acres are typically planted.
      Along with increased pumping of groundwater, federal officials expect to have in reserve more than 60,000 acre-feet of water -- about 15% of the basin's normal use -- to help two species of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and the threatened coho salmon in the river.
      Finally, a U.S. agricultural program is providing $7 million to the basin for new water conservation efforts, such as removing stands of juniper trees that suck up groundwater and converting farms to more efficient sprinkler irrigation.
      "We're trying to be part of the solution," said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Assn. "But we're continually plagued by these outside interests lobbing grenades and trying to manufacture an artificial crisis."
      Foes do abound. Environmentalists, Native American tribes and fishermen say the water bank and other efforts are steps in the right direction but not nearly enough. They contend that federal water managers are setting the stage for another disaster.
      "They have focused on preserving the status quo," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "Last year, the status quo killed 33,000 salmon."
      In the meantime, environmentalists cautioned federal officials to avoid sending too much water to irrigators until the court case is decided, saying it would be wiser to slowly mete out the irrigation supply.
      Reclamation officials say they will simply follow their water plan, until the courts tell them otherwise. And in reality, they say, farmers won't need to pull much water from the basin's intricate system of canals before the April 29 court hearing. Recent rains have soaked the ground enough to cut early irrigation needs, said Jeff McCracken, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.
      Underlying the early jousting in this year's battle are more fundamental differences of opinion.
      Environmentalists continue to push for buying out farmland and putting it permanently out of production so more water goes to the fish. While a water bank makes sense as a temporary solution, "it won't work over the long haul," said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon. Only by retiring farmland can demand be brought "back into balance with what nature can provide," he said.
      Though some farmers have embraced the idea of buyouts, most irrigators in the Klamath Basin have resisted. They contend that a huge land retirement program would undercut the basin's economy, putting tractor dealers, seed sellers and other farm-related firms out of business.


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