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Lake inflow, groundwater both falling


Published May 6, 2004


Inflow to Upper Klamath Lake has faltered in recent weeks, thwarting the hopes of federal water managers to fill the lake to capacity as irrigation season approaches its peak of activity.

Dave Sabo, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project, said the lake probably reached its maximum elevation last Friday.

The lake's water surface was measured Friday at 4,152.65 feet above sea level, or more than a half-foot below capacity. If the lake had filled, there would be about another 50,000 acre-feet of water available, or enough to cover 50,000 acres with a foot of water.

In early April the National Resources Conservation Service predicted the lake would receive 420,000 acre-feet of inflow during the spring and summer.

But that forecast has been trimmed by more than 20 percent following unusually warm and dry weather during April.

Last year the lake filled in late March, and remained full through mid-May. It was the only time in the last four years the lake has been filled. Still, inflows fell so quickly last year that the Bureau at one point in June ordered a five-day shutdown of the project - a move that was averted after the agency struck a compromise with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I don't know how this year will turn out," Sabo said Wednesday.

He expressed disappointment that projections for inflow are not proving out, and said the Bureau needs more accurate forecasts.

"We can't live this way - this is killing us," he said.

This year, the Bureau is using a pilot management plan for the lake in which end-of-month lake level targets are revised as needed to reflect inflow from streams and springs.

The plan is designed to avoid predicaments like the one the Bureau found itself in last June.

If last year's management scheme were in place this year, the lake would already be below the level required to protect endangered suckers.

But Sabo said that wouldn't mean the Project would have to be shut down. He said the Bureau would be able to get some flexibility in lake level requirements from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Last year some irrigators voluntarily switched to groundwater instead of drawing canal water, Sabo said.

"I'm sure that is what kept the lake from going into the critical range," he said.

Weak inflow again this year means the Bureau will have to rely on its water bank, in which it pays irrigators to switch to groundwater or idle farmland.

For this year, the Bureau has 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater under contract, Sabo said.

The Oregon Water Resources Department has issued 130 supplemental permits for groundwater usage since 2001 and there are 10 to 15 applications in for permits, said Barry Norris, an administrator with the Department.

The permits give irrigators authority to use groundwater if their primary source of water, usually Project canal water, is short.

With the water bank, the Bureau is paying irrigators to put those permits to use.

Relying on groundwater is not the Bureau officials' first choice for providing extra water this year.

"We wanted to do more with storage this year," Sabo said. "But you have to fill the lake to have stored water."

The combined effects of several dry years in a row and increased use of wells is taking a toll on groundwater supplies, Norris said.

"The water table is dropping," he said.

The Oregon Water Resources Department, along with the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Department of Water Resources, is working on a study about groundwater in the Basin that should be out late next year.

Ned Gates, a hydrogeologist with the Oregon Water Resources Department in Bend, said wells near Malin are dropping about three to four feet per year.

But the drop in groundwater isn't restricted to areas were pumping occurs.

Wells north of Upper Klamath Lake, including one near Collier State Park, are also showing a drop, he said.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said irrigators are having to switch to groundwater because the Project water they had always depended isn't always available.

"Nobody at the local level is going out and promoting groundwater pumping," he said. "We want that Klamath Project surface water."

Demands for water increased following the release of a biological opinion that strengthened protection for coho salmon in the lower Klamath River.

"Nobody that I know in the farm community had ever envisioned going to groundwater every year to meet the biological opinion," he said.

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