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

Water from Oregon’s
Wood River Valley

Solving Water Problems in the Klamath Basin

A Proposed Solution by the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust

September 15, 2002

Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust

James Root, Chair
Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust
c/o Fort Klamath Properties
P.O. Box 129, Medford, OR 97501
(541) 722-5653 Extension 117

Kurt Thomas, Secretary/Treasurer
Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust
c/o Thomas Cattle Company
5401 California Avenue, Suite 30, Bakersfield, CA, 93309
(661) 861-6266

William Winner, Board Member
Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust
Professor, Department of Botany and Plant Pathology
Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331
(541) 737-1749

Chrysten Root, Geologist/Hydrologist
Pacific Groundwater Group
2377 Eastlake Avenue East, Seattle, WA 98119
(206) 329-0141

I. Executive Summary

Competing water demands in the Klamath Basin now exceeds supply. Water shortages are particularly acute during years of low rainfall. Increasing water quality and quantity will help stabilize the economies for downstream farmers, ranchers, fishermen and Native Americans.

One of the Klamath Basin’s sub regions — the Wood River Valley — presents a unique opportunity to transform a landscape dominated by irrigation and grazing, into habitat that conserves water and allows the return of wildlife. This proposal involves:

The acquisition of water rights in the Wood River Valley to enable a curtailment of irrigation and reduction of cattle grazing.

 Disabling dikes that now exist around Agency Lake to restore the water storage capacity and environmental benefit of adjacent wetlands.

Changing water use in the Wood River Valley will permit water, otherwise used for flood irrigation, to naturally flow into streams and lakes, which will improve the quantity and quality of water resources throughout the entire Klamath Basin. If grazing is reduced, the landscape will again support thriving populations of important wildlife species, including bald eagles, red band rainbow trout, shortnose and Lost River suckers and other native species.

The Wood River Valley represents the best opportunity to quickly and efficiently provide a new source of clean water to those in desperate need of water further downstream:

 Rivers and streams of the Wood River Valley provide about 25% of the water feeding Upper Klamath Lake. Leaving water in the streams that is currently used for flood irrigation, will nearly double the current flow of the Wood River and add a lake foot of water to Upper Klamath Lake during the irrigation season — 60,000 to 80,000 acre-feet of water (200 to 270 cfs) during the irrigation season

 The Wood River Valley occupies only 5% of the land area of the upper Klamath Basin but currently supports about 50% of the cattle. Reducing grazing to sustainable levels without irrigation, will result in an immediate, direct improvement in Klamath Basin water quality, by decreasing amounts of phosphorus in the waters draining to Agency Lake. In turn, this will increase riparian vegetation and promote biodiversity in aquatic and terrestrial habitats.

 Disabling dikes near Agency Lake will restore wetlands, assist the efforts of other entities to improve water quality, add to water storage capacity and reduce expenses for operation and maintenance of the present dike system. Disabling the dikes may provide an additional 45,000 acre-feet of water.

Implementing this plan will economically benefit local residents who actively seek opportunity for positive change. Transformation of the Wood River Valley as herein proposed, can be quick and efficient because water rights are controlled by only 15 rancher/owners, most of whom are non-residents.

II. Analysis

1. The Klamath Basin: Overcommitted Water

The Klamath Basin, located in Northern California and Southern Oregon, is now well known for its inability to supply enough water to meet the competing demands of its water users. The water supply for Upper Klamath Basin comes from three major river rivers, each with its own, unique valley (Figure 1). Water from the Wood River flows into Agency Lake, which then drains into Upper Klamath Lake. Water from the Williamson River and its tributary, the Sprague River, drains directly into Upper Klamath Lake. Upper Klamath Lake is the primary water source for the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project and the Klamath River.

The fundamental problem is that water resources in the Klamath Basin are over committed and cannot meet all of the demands. Competing water needs include those for agriculture, endangered fish species, Native American fishing rights and downstream fishing communities. For example, in the year 2001, the water supply was insufficient for agriculture because of drought and increased instream flow requirements for endangered fish species. The result was lawsuits filed by farmers and ranchers, public protests, law enforcement officers guarding water distribution control points and disruption of the Klamath Basin’s economy.

In addition to the need for additional water in the Klamath Basin, there is also a growing need to improve the quality of water in the Klamath Basin. In particular, nutrient loading to Upper Klamath Lake and water temperatures must be reduced in order to protect endangered species and facilitate recreational use of the lake. Natural variation in annual precipitation ensures that there will be years in the future when the water supply is inadequate to meet the needs of the Endangered Species Act, agriculture and other users. The most feasible way to improve both the quantity and quality of water in the Klamath Basin is to develop a new supply of water through conservation efforts.

The general goal of this project proposal is to increase the quantity and quality of water in the Klamath Basin by conserving irrigation water in the Wood River Valley. The Wood River Valley is located in south, central Oregon and includes five creeks and innumerable artesian springs which flow into Agency Lake (Figure 2). The valley is currently used for high density cattle grazing. The current grazing capacity is made possible by an elaborate irrigation system that diverts spring fed creeks and rivers onto pastures and that drain the low lying, wetland areas allowing cattle to forage. Our proposal is to acquire or lease water rights in order to stop this irrigation. When irrigation is curtailed waters of the Wood River Valley will remain in their streambeds, drain naturally into Agency Lake and flow to the downstream portions of the Klamath Basin. The Wood River Valley will be managed back to its natural state by elimination of water diversions, irrigation ditches and drainage ditches. The pastures in the Wood River Valley will return to a natural state allowing a limited number of livestock to exist on a sustainable basis.

The proposed transformation of the Wood River Valley presents a unique opportunity because the natural resource values of the Valley now outweigh the agricultural values. Implementation of this proposal will result in a significant new supply of water that is of higher quality than that currently flowing from The Wood River Valley. The proposed land use change takes no land from agricultural production, poses no threat to those currently holding water rights in the Wood River Valley, contributes to the conservation goals for habitat restoration needed by wildlife and moves water use from irrigating pastures to a higher agricultural priority.

2. Project Overview

The proposed Wood River Valley Project has three basic goals:

 Goal 1: Increase Water Supply to Downstream Uses in the Klamath Basin.
Estimates of the new supply of water produced by curtailing irrigation in the Wood River Valley range from 200 - 270 cfs during the crop growing season. Water is of a premium during the agricultural growing season (May through September), since the growing season coincides with the period when water is most needed by endangered fish species. The new water supply provided by the curtailment of irrigation in the Valley is enough to raise Klamath Lake by at least one foot and is enough to meet the water deficit existing for downstream users except during the most extreme conditions.

 Goal 2: Restoration of Wetlands and Pastures.
A key aspect of the proposed project is the restoration of 15,000 acres of wetlands. The wetlands are located on the northern boundary of Agency Lake and are currently separated from the lake by an extensive system of dikes and drains. Development of a comprehensive resource management plan for these wetlands, that includes conservation of habitat for endangered species and establishment of hydraulic connectivity between the wetlands and lake, is essential to the ecology of the Wood River Valley. Such restoration would also provide an additional 45,000 ac-ft of water to the lake and downstream users on an annual basis. The restoration of pasture lands in the Valley would primarily include fencing of riparian and wildlife corridors and instream restoration to improve spawning and rearing habitat for endangered and protected fish species. The proposed reductions in cattle populations would protect upland habitats for endangered and threatened terrestrial species as well. The proposed restoration activities do not generally require large investments, but can instead be accomplished by natural processes.

 Goal 3: Improve Water Quality in Rivers and Lakes.
The phosphorus inputs from rivers and streams into Agency Lake and Upper Klamath Lake result in enormous blooms of algae. The algae deplete oxygen levels in the lakes to levels below those needed by fish, including the endangered short-nosed and Lost River sucker species. In addition, the high water temperature of rivers and streams during summer are detrimental to migrating fish including endangered salmon and sucker species. The Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) recently approved by the EPA for Upper Klamath Lake indicate a 40% reduction in phosphorous loading to the lake is necessary. In order to meet this water quality goal, all anthropogenic phosphorous loading will have to be eliminated. The proposed curtailment of irrigation in the Wood River Valley and subsequent reductions in grazing, coupled with the restoration of the wetlands, is expected to reduce the anthropogenic phosphorus load to Agency Lake from the Wood River Valley by 75%. In addition, the restoration of riparian habitat along the Wood River will reduce water temperatures in the River and at its point of entry into Agency Lake.

The proposed changes in water and land use detailed above are the easiest, fastest and most direct way to create a supply of new, clean water in the Klamath Basin. The Wood River Valley is a prime area for such changes in water use because on a unit area basis the Valley has great potential to generate increased flow and reduce phosphorus loading to the lake. More specifically, the Wood River Valley occupies only 5% of the Upper Klamath Basin, but supplies 25% of the water and 30% of the phosphorous flowing into Upper Klamath Lake and supports nearly 50% of the cattle grazed in the Basin.

3. Land Use and Resources

3.1. Location and Land Use History.
The Wood River Valley is located about 50 miles north of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The Valley runs north-south, is about 4 miles long by 12 miles wide and its entire acreage is currently devoted to intense cattle grazing. At present, about 50,000 steers are pastured in the Valley throughout the summer, on 48 square miles of irrigated pasture.

The Wood River, Crooked Creek, Sevenmile Creek and Fourmile Creek are the primary surface water bodies in the Wood River Valley that provide vital sources of water for the Klamath Basin. These rivers and creeks feed a sequence of connected water bodies including Agency Lake, Upper Klamath Lake, the Klamath Irrigation Project and ultimately the Klamath River. The wetlands and wet meadows of the Wood River Valley are sustained by drainage ditches and levies and irrigation ditches are used to divert water from rivers and streams onto pastures. The water rights of ranches in the Wood River Valley are tied to a range of dates and many water rights are adjudicated.

The Klamath Indians were the initial inhabitants of the Valley, which was a part of the former Klamath Reservation. The Klamath Reservation has gone through a series of changes resulting in the selling of most easement and water rights to ranchers. At present, two small towns are located in or near the Wood River Valley, Fort Klamath and Chiloquin.

Cattle grazing in the Valley began in the late in the 19th Century and continues today on about 15 large ranches. Large-scale ranching by single landowners with more than 1,000 acres became possible when wetlands in the Valley were drained by ditches and elaborate flood irrigation systems were developed for the upland pastures. Pastures require irrigation because precipitation in the Valley comes mostly in the period November to May. The period during the summer growing season, from May through October, is generally dry. Without summer irrigation, the pastures will not support current grazing practices.

3.2. Current Ranch Activity.
The ranchers who own the land and water in the Wood River Valley are generally absentee owners who lease grazing rights to cattle owners, who also live out of state. Cattle are trucked from California, other western states and Mexico to the Valley in June and are removed in October. The limited number of ranch owners, the small size of the valley and the non-resident nature of the landowners makes it possible to convert the Valley from a ranch-based resource use system to a nature-based resource system. A significant feature of this proposal is the low economic return currently generated by this land and the resultant willingness on the part of most owners to sell. Current gross rental rates for land in the Wood River Valley range from $70 to 90 per acre. After management, utilities and taxes are deducted the net income is closer to $40 to 50 per acre for land, which sells for about $2,600 - $3,000 per acre. The low investment return (2-3%) may not justify the current use of water in the Valley, especially when there is great demand for more and cleaner water elsewhere within the Klamath Basin.

3.3. Natural Features.
The landscape of the Wood River Valley has spectacular beauty. The Valley sits at the foot of Crater Lake National Park and is surrounded by peaks, many of which are snowcapped. The forests on slopes surrounding the peaks are mature and include Lodgepole Pine, other short-leafed pine species and grand fir. Many riparian and wetland species still persist in the Valley pastures. Facilitating easy and cost-effective restoration.

The rivers and creeks of the Wood River Valley are fed by water emerging from springs located in foothills surrounding the Valley, as well as snowmelt from Crater Lake and the Cascades. The spring water supply is constant through the year, with water temperatures less than 45o F. The springs have a natural beauty that is unsurpassed in southern Oregon and provides unique habitat for many species of plants and animals. Most of the springs are located off pasture-lands.

3.4. Social Issues.
The towns of Fort Klamath and Chiloquin in the Wood River Valley provide markets and services for rural residents. The ranch owners typically do not live in the Valley, but have permanent homes in other locations. Ranchers will often visit the Valley during the grazing season, but not during the winter when ranches are staffed by a limited number of hired hands that maintain the property.

The permanent population of the Wood River Valley is less than 400 people. The town of Fort Klamath has a population of less than 200 people and has a café, gas pump and small mercantile. Just outside of the valley, the town of Chiloquin maintains a population of about 750 people, maintains a gas station, hardware store, post office and two small mercantiles. Chiloquin has a small school system. The economies of the two towns are depressed and economic growth under current land usage is unlikely.

4. Calculation of Water Losses from Flood Irrigation

4.1. Estimating Water Used by Irrigation.
Water that would naturally flow from the Wood River Valley into Agency Lake is currently being diverted for irrigation of cattle pastures. Irrigation begins in May, involves large amounts of water by June and is sustained through September. The irrigation period and growing season coincide with periods when there is little precipitation in the Klamath Basin and the need for water by those further downstream is intense. Most properties in the Valley are flood irrigated and large portions of this water is lost from the basin by evaporation and transpiration. An estimate of the total quantity of water lost due to irrigation practices in the Wood River Valley must be calculated to determine the amount of water that can be supplied to downstream users through this proposed project. Water lost in the Valley can be estimated by two independent methods:

 Calculating evapotranspiration (ET) of pastures.

 Calculating the difference between water entering and leaving the Wood River Valley, above and below points of diversion.

The results of these two independent methods for calculating the amount of water lost from the Wood River Valley by irrigation can be compared to assess the accuracy of the estimates and provide assurance of the quantity of water that will be made available when irrigation is stopped.

4.2. Using Evapotranspiration to Determine Water Loss.
One method for determining the amount of water lost from pastures as the result of irrigation is to measure ET. ET is the water lost by evaporation from soil and plant surfaces and by transpiration from plants in the pasture (Appendix 1) and is a reliable and frequently used method for calculating water loss. The ET approach takes into account many of the variables that are known to affect rates of water loss including soil qualities, the amount of plant biomass, the field efficiency of pasture plants and meteorological factors such as temperature, wind and solar radiation. In fact, ET integrates all of these factors and others, so that it is not necessary to do an independent accounting of each factor known to affect water availability and use. In addition, using ET avoids the need to measure and sum the quantity of water diverted at numerous head gates and ditches, data that are generally not available or reliable in the Wood River Valley.

The ET from pasture in the Wood River Drainage and the amount of irrigation required to meet the ET demand for the May to October growing season was estimated from well documented values for pasture in the Klamath Basin. The ET from pasture is about 31 inches and the net irrigation required is about 29 inches. Consequently, to grow pasture grass in Valley pastures under current management, 29 inches of irrigation water are pumped by ET into the air during the growing season. For an acre of land, envision 29 inches of liquid water spread over the entire acre and that is the quantity of irrigation water lost by ET each growing season. Without irrigation, precipitation, soil pore moisture left over from the rainy season and capillary fringe water from the groundwater table are capable of supporting some natural pasture growth. Under the natural condition pasture growth is significantly reduced and large cattle population cannot be supported by the natural condition. Therefore in order support current grazing practices, about 29 inches of water, for each acre of pasture, must be diverted from rivers and creeks during the May to October growing season. The ET estimate of 29 inches constitutes about 2.5 acre-feet of water per acre spread over the 48 square miles of the Valley, or a total water volume of about 80,000 acre-feet, that could be diverted to downstream users. Since these ET values are based on the Klamath Falls area (which is slightly drier than the Wood River Valley) a conservative estimate of irrigation water lost from ET is 60,000 to 80,000 ac-ft per irrigation season.

The ET calculation (Appendix 1) determines the volume of water currently diverted to maintain pastures and can be used to estimate the new flow rate of water that can be added to the Upper Klamath Lake if irrigation is curtailed. The increased flow of water into Agency Lake from the Wood River Valley, would equal about 200 to 270 cfs. To put this in perspective, the flow rate of the Wood River during the irrigation season averages about 200 cfs, so irrigation uses about half the flow of the Wood River during the summer.

4.3. Monitoring Changes in Wood River Flow Rates to Estimate Water Loss.
A second method for calculating the amount of water that can be added to the lake by the forbearance of irrigation rights is to compare the volume of water entering the valley above the irrigation diversion, to the volume below the irrigation diversions. Data from a variety of sources provides an estimate of the stream flow in the Wood River Valley during irrigation and non-irrigation periods and above and below points of diversion. Historic stream flow records were obtained from USGS publications, from ODWR, USFS, USBR, The Klamath Tribes and from Graham Matthews and Associates, who have maintained several stream flow stations in the Wood River Valley since 1998 (Appendix 2).

Calculations show that about 71,500 acre-feet of stream flow are diverted in a typical year from the Wood River system and another 15,700 acre-feet from the Fourmile/Sevenmile systems on the west side of the valley during the May through September irrigation season. The total of 87,200 acre-feet diverted from May through September equals 570 acre-feet per day, or 288 cfs.

The estimate of water lost from irrigation by doing a water balance of flows for the Wood River Valley is remarkably close to the 200 to 270 cfs estimated using the ET method above. Estimating water lost from irrigation by balancing water flows overestimates losses because a proportion of water used for flood irrigation drains into creeks and rivers to ultimately reach Agency Lake. This estimation error likely explains the slight variation between the two methods of water loss calculation.

The close agreement of water used by irrigation provides confidence in the calculation of water that can be diverted from the Wood River Valley to Agency Lake and for downstream users. Curtailing irrigation will result in adding 200 to 270 cfs into Upper Klamath Lake during the summer irrigation season. The added water is significant to all water users in the Klamath Basin, will contribute greatly to those seeking to mitigate problems from low water quantity and quality and equates to 1 ft or more of lake elevation in Upper Klamath Lake during the growing season.

5. Environmental Restoration in the Wood River Valley

Several ranchers and state and federal agencies have combined efforts to make improvements in land use in small sections of the Wood River Valley. In all cases, efforts to restore habitat and biodiversity, such as using riparian fence to remove cattle from the Wood River Valley, are successful. Such efforts show that not only will the proposed Project improve the quantity and quality of water supplied to the downstream users, but will also help improve the habitat for wildlife, including rare and endangered species in the Valley. The landowners promoting conservation are acting independently and, with uncertain funding, are not able to develop an integrated, comprehensive program for transforming the Valley landscape.

Although the detrimental impacts of allowing cattle to have direct access to streams is well documented, only a very limited portion of the riparian areas in the Wood River Valley are fenced. Observation of the short stretches of the Wood River and Crooked Creek that are now protected with riparian fences to prevent cattle from grazing in or near the streams indicate without exception, that the exclusion of cattle has resulted in the return of riparian vegetation, including tree, shrub and wetland species. Emergence of wetland vegetation and establishment of trees and shrubs improves habitat for waterfowl, other birds, fish and other animals.

Excluding cattle from streams also results in improved spawning habitat for red band trout and two species of suckers that are listed as Endangered Species. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have identified the Wood River Valley as high priority habitat for a number of important, rare species including these fish. The red band rainbow trout is a prime example of a species for which conservation is a priority. Adults of this trout species live in Klamath-Agency Lake where they can grow to nearly 20 pounds when not subjected to poor water quality. Spawning and rearing of juveniles occurs in the rivers and creeks, of which the Wood River and Crooked Creek are of principal importance. A comparison of fenced and unfenced sections of riparian areas shows that degradation of water quality and habitat caused by cattle grazing in the Valley streams impairs the spawning and rearing ability of the trout and that riparian vegetation, channel form and spawning habitat quickly improve when protected from cattle.

6. Restoration in Upper Klamath Lake

Several wetland restoration projects are currently underway in the Klamath-Agency Lake system. The US Bureau of Land Management has acquired and is managing the Wood River Ranch for wetland and hunting habitat. In addition, The Nature Conservancy has acquired and is managing the southern shores of Agency Lake, an area that includes the Lower Williamson River Delta Preserve. The US Bureau of Reclamation has acquired the Agency Lake Ranch and is managing the land as a wetland water storage project around the periphery of Agency Lake. All three projects are presently constrained by dikes that separate the wetlands from Agency Lake, thereby hampering restoration of the ecological function of these lands. Disabling these dikes will add significant additional water storage in the natural wetlands that surround Agency Lake. A conservative estimate of water that could be stored when the dikes are disable is about 45,000 acre-feet. Increasing the water storage capacity of the Wood River Valley and Agency Lake provides crucial flexibility for those managing lake levels to supply water users downstream.

Restoring the hydraulic connectivity between Agency Lake wetlands and Upper Klamath Lake would provide many benefits that go beyond water storage. The recovery of wetlands will improve fish habitat and filter nutrients and sediment from river water thereby improving water quality in Agency Lake and downstream waters. Breaching the dikes surrounding Agency Lake will also reduce the current costs of servicing the dikes, pumps and access roads that are currently needed to operate and maintain the dike system.

7. Conclusions

The problems due to over-commitment of water resources in the Klamath Basin can be addressed by changing water use practices in the Wood River Valley. The changes proposed include diverting water used for flood irrigating pastures in the Wood River Valley to downstream users, reducing cattle grazing to levels that can be sustained without irrigation and disabling the dikes adjacent Agency Lake. These changes in water use are the easiest, most efficient means for mitigating one of the most serious and visible environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest.

Diverting water from the current irrigation uses in the Wood River Valley will add 60,000 to 80,000 acre-feet, or the volume of at least 1.0 lake foot of water, to Upper Klamath Lake. In addition, the proposed wetland restoration and dike removal would add 45,000 acre-feet of storage to the lake. The additional volume of water will produce a significant increase for use by farmers, ranchers and government agencies charged with managing the regions natural resources. Water quality improvements such as the reduction of phosphorous inputs to Upper Klamath Lake from the Wood River Valley, will provide additional benefits by reducing harmful algae blooms that limit the productivity of three endangered fish species and enhancing recreational use of the lake.

The reduction of cattle grazing to levels sustainable without irrigation and the fencing of riparian corridors, will improve natural habitats by allowing stream form and stream beds to recover from cattle intrusion and by permitting the growth of riparian vegetation. The result will be the return of seasonal wetlands, improved habitat for fish and aquatic organisms and cooler water temperatures.

The proposed change in water use practices in the Wood River Valley, will mean acquiring the water rights owned by 15 ranchers who irrigate in the 48 square miles that constitute the Valley. However, the change in water use will not remove land from agricultural production and will likely be welcomed by ranchers who seek financial relief. The change in water use practices will also have little affect on employment for the sparse population in the Valley because newly created employment opportunities are expected to offset lost jobs.

Appendix 1. Assumptions and calculations for ET determinations

Evapotranspiration can be used to estimate the new flow rate of water that can be added to the Klamath Basin if Valley irrigation is stopped . Calculations show that the increased flow of water into Agency Lake from the Wood River and Crooked Creek, if flood irrigation were stopped, would equal about 230 cfs. To put 230 cfs into perspective, the average flow of the Wood River is about 190 cfs, so irrigation uses about half the flow of the Wood River during the summer.


1. The Evapotranspiration (ET) from the Wood River Valley is 31 inches.

2. Seven of the 31 inches of ET come from precipitation and not from springs feeding the Wood River.

3. The 7 inches of ET from precipitation can not be added to the Wood River flow and is subtracted from the 31 inches of ET.

4. Irrigation takes place from June 1 - Oct 15 (4.5 months).

5. The Wood River Valley is 48 square miles in area.


1. 31 inches of ET - 7 inches of ET originating from precipitation = 24 inches of ET from the Wood River.

2. 24 inches of ET = 2 feet of liquid water over the landscape.

3. 1 acre = 43,560 square feet x 2 acre feet = 90,000 cubic feet of water/acre.

4. 4.5 months x 30 days/mo x 24 h/day x 60 min/h x 60 sec/min = 11,664,000 sec.

5. 90,000 cubic feet of water/acre divided by 11,664,000 sec = flow of 0.00736 cfs/acre.

6. 640 acres/square mile x 48 square miles in the Wood River Valley = 30,720 acres.

7. 0.00736 cfs/acre x 30,720 acres = 230 cfs.

Appendix 2.



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