Time to Take Action
Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.

AgriNews March 2007, Page 1

What happened with the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project?
And could the same happen to you?

Perhaps the best comparison of life before 2001, and after 2001 in the Klamath Basin would be something like prewar, an ambush, mass destruction, shock, then picking ourselves up and trying to survive the follow-up attacks.

Before 2001, a typical day on the farm was work, work, and more work. It was another God-blessed day, basking in the freedoms of America. One had a farm, machinery, kids, livestock, and a schedule of chores from dawn to dusk. Camaraderie was the cornerstone of our community. Neighbors helped neighbors. Life was hard, but there were always God, wildlife, neighbors, harvest, freedom to farm, and confidence in Americans’ rights. Our agricultural organizations were active and dependent upon a small group of producers for input and action. On the ground, producers were doing the right thing, growing crops and building projects to benefit wildlife and agriculture.

The last truck of harvest leaves the Klamath Basin in 2005. Photo by Jacqui Krizo

It was the turn of the 20th Century when settlers came to ranch and farm at the edge of Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake. Tule Lake, at the terminus of the Lost River, was a closed basin before the Klamath Project was built. Overflow from the Klamath River during periods of high flows spilled into the Lost River Slough and ended up in Tule Lake. More Klamath River water flowed into the Lower Klamath Lake and adjacent marsh areas. These two lakes at times represented over 150,000 acres of evaporation ponds. The outlet for the upper Klamath Basin was a reef at Keno, Oregon. Link River was the outlet for Upper Klamath Lake. There are documented brief periods when no water flowed out of Upper Klamath Lake prior to replacing part of the reef at the outlet with a dam constructed in 1922.

Tule Lake in 1905 Crops were lush in the Klamath Basin Project in 2000 The same field was a virtual desert in 2001 after the government locked up irrigation water, supposedly to save endangered fish.

A popular misconception is that Klamath Basin farmers are taking water and using it to irrigate a desert. The Bureau of Reclamation built the most efficient irrigation project in the United States by rerouting water and building storage for irrigation.  The Klamath Project would provide free regulated water for hydropower on the Klamath River, giving power customers lower power rates.  The groundwater table is very shallow, so return flows from irrigated fields ends up in Tulelake and Lower Klamath wildlife refuges. Surplus water from the refuges is pumped through the Straits Drain back to the Klamath River.

After World Wars I and II, The United States government invited veterans to enter a lottery to win a homestead in part of this Reclamation Project. These young patriotic families came to grow food for America for the rest of their lives. Each holds a land and water right signed by their President.

The Klamath Basin is the most important feeding stop in the Pacific Flyway, with ducks and geese consuming more than 70 million pounds of food. Crops on the refuges and private fields provide more than 50% of this feed.  Klamath Project irrigators take strict precautions with pesticides and fertilizers. A multi-year study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found no evidence of animal illness or death caused by pesticides or fertilizer.

A system that benefits the economy, the area, the nation and the wildlife is a good thing.

In the late 1980s two species of suckers native to the upper basin were listed as endangered. In the late 1990s Coho salmon in the Klamath River were listed as threatened species. Because of the Federal nexus of the Klamath Reclamation Project, its operations became subject to Biological Opinions formulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for suckers and the National Marine Fisheries Service for salmon.

In 2000 the Department of Justice contracted Dr. Thomas B Hardy to establish Indian water rights by being an expert witness for (and paid for by) the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Klamath River adjudication process.  The BIA authorized $550,086 for Hardy in his 2000 contract. He worked with the Klamath River Basin Fisheries Task Force Technical Work Group and used tribal biology paid for by individual tribes.  From his studies, a biological opinion was formulated to mandate Klamath River flows. Irrigators and their scientists were not allowed at the table in this process.

As a baseline guide for historic ‘average’ flows needed in the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam, Dr. Hardy used a period of years when Bureau of Reclamation records indicated inflows to Upper Klamath Lake were 34% above the long term average. The period used was after the Lost River Slough had been diked off to prevent spill out of the Klamath River to Tule Lake. His science called for more water to be demanded from the Upper Klamath Basin than is physically possible.

In combination with a Biological Opinion mandating minimum elevations in Upper Klamath Lake to protect suckers, deliveries of water from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River to the Klamath Project were denied in an announcement made on April 6, 2001 by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Mass destruction and shock
In 2001 Klamath Lake was overflowing while farms and refuges were devastated. Farmers pumped their well water into the refuges while their fields went dry. Over 200 wells went dry. Farm laborers had to move away, many who had lived here for decades. They had no money or jobs or homes to go to. Parched soil eroded with winds causing accidents. People went broke. There were suicides and heart attacks. The elderly settlers, their children, and their children, cried. “How could this happen? How, in America, could our country deprive our farms of water, our refuges of water, and our community of an economy? How could ‘environmentalists’ tell us that we are bad, agriculture is bad, and we should let our land and ecosystem forever go dry and die?”

There were meetings and gatherings constantly. Armed federal marshals guarded the head gate of the main diversion channel so farmers could not get water for their dying fields, livestock and wildlife, from the storage that they paid for.

Follow-Up Attacks
Full water deliveries were restored to farms and ranches in 2002.  The Department of the Interior told project irrigators to form a water bank so in a dry year they would not use as much of their stored irrigation water. Twenty people met more than 50 times and designed a water bank to fallow land and pump groundwater in dry years, and let the aquifer replenish in wet years while allowing full water deliveries. Irrigators would be paid to not irrigate land or to use groundwater rather than stored surface water to meet these unrealistic lake-level and river-flow demands. Irrigators designed this water bank so they would have a reliable supply. The Bureau threw out the Klamath Water Users’ workable water bank and made their own without our input.

Their plan demands 100,000 acre feet of water to be taken from Klamath irrigators every year, even on wet years. According to Oregon Water Resources Department records, because of this demand, our aquifer is being depleted by five feet per year with no time to recharge. And the irrigators have no assurance that they will receive irrigation water.

The Biological Opinions established lake level and flow requirements that varied depending on expected inflow to Upper Klamath Lake from April through September. Differences between the year types established are such that in some cases higher inflows result in more demands for flows and lake maintenance, leaving less water for the Project. In those situations it is wise to pray for less snow or rain.

In 2003, the Bureau said they would again shut off our water because a wet spring triggered higher flows and lake level requirements. On June 25, the Bureau announced that the A Canal would be shut down until after June 30 to avoid violating the minimum lake elevation for the end of June. Later that day they reversed their decision but with demands for more water savings. The blackmail was, with over $100 million of crops in the ground, we had to pump our groundwater all summer at our own expense, in addition to the Bureau’s water bank demands, while they poured our stored water down the river. They said if we didn’t pump, they would again deny us our stored irrigation water.

When government goes bad
In fall of ’02 the tribes demanded more water down the Klamath River. Klamath Water Users and their scientists advised against this plan because the warm shallow water from the Upper Klamath Lake storage would be lethal for the salmon. Unfortunately the Bureau released the warm water and thousands of Trinity River salmon died when they entered the Klamath. Tribes and government agencies continue to blame Project irrigators and low flows for the fish die-off. Project water comprises less than four percent of the total water at the mouth of the Klamath River.

In October of ’03 the National Academy of Science final report said the science that shut down irrigation supplies to the Klamath Project in 2001 was flawed. The committee found no causal connection between Upper Klamath Lake water levels and suckers’ health, or higher flows on the Klamath River helping Coho. The fish that died in 2002 were not caused by lack of more Project water, and more water would not have prevented the fish die-off. “Recovery of endangered suckers and threatened Coho can not be achieved by actions focused on the operation of the Klamath Project.”

Since the NAS is the best available peer-reviewed science in the United States, one would think that the Project Operation plan for 2004 and thereafter would reflect that science. Think again. Besides demanding 100,000 acre feet of our stored water and aquifer regardless of water year type to artificially elevate lake levels and river flows, the Bureau hired Dr. Hardy again to create more science to regulate flows and take Project water. The NAS findings have been ignored.

Next week I'll tell you most recent Klamath developments.

Jacqui Krizo writes from Tulelake, California. Her dad won a homestead in the Klamath Basin in 1949, and her husband's father in 1947. She and her husband grow organic barley and organic horseradish in the Tulelake basin, and bottle their own brand of horseradish. They manage the www.klamathbasincrisis.org website which serves Klamath Basin farmers, miners, loggers, fishermen and communities.


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