Development’s impact on water should be assessed
Recent interest has been generated about conflicts between development and agriculture in Klamath Falls, and in other areas of the West.
The Herald and News recently ran a story about the Family Farm Alliance annual meeting in Las Vegas, where concerns were expressed over the future of agriculture in the Western United States. At that meeting, numerous anecdotal accounts were provided of agricultural lands being converted to residential and commercial development and of agricultural water being used (transferred or bought) to support these new demands.
Other demands exist
It’s not just new development that pinches existing agricultural water supplies. As everyone in the Klamath Basin knows, the environmental water demands imposed by regulatory agencies or courts also first look to agriculture as a source of supply.
This is happening throughout the West, but farmers and ranchers point to some striking examples, including along Colorado’s Front Range, in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas, and in the Central Valley of California. However, conflicts between Klamath Basin agriculture and Klamath Falls city development is one that has not emerged, for good reasons.
In general, the Klamath Irrigation Project relies on surface water while the urban area relies on deep wells, primarily from the Conger well-field aquifer. Conger water has not been on the surface for at least 60 years.
The available data suggests that the city wells do not appear to be directly tied to the aquifers used by local agricultural wells.
Currently during the summer months, the city and South Suburban Sanitary District actually add more than 100 million gallons of flow each month to the surface waters in Klamath River by discharging treated effluent that originally came from these wells. Further, city development is generally occurring in the hills to the north, east and west, not on prime farmland. Overall, the City of Klamath Falls has done a decent job of preventing southern residential development on farm lands.
A potential challenge that remains to be resolved is addressing proposals that would place new residential development in the heart of the Klamath Irrigation Project.
Klamath Project surface water is not going to take care of these new domestic needs nor will the city’s water system — new wells will. Already, Project irrigators are using groundwater to provide a substantial portion of the 100,000 acre-foot environmental water bank established by fishery agencies for coho salmon in the Klamath River. So, the new impacts to the aquifers underlying the Klamath Project (resulting from new wells and new septic tanks) will have to be carefully evaluated, in a manner that absolutely respects the rights of the private property owner and the intent of Measure 37.
Someone also needs to take a closer look at the bigger, Westwide picture.
Traditional farms and ranches are disappearing, and our country has actually become a net importer of food, drawing frightening parallels to our dependence on foreign sources of energy.
Ironically, it is because western irrigated agriculture has been so adaptive and successful at providing plentiful, safe and affordable food that it is now jeopardized — nobody believes there can be a problem.
The last Americans to experience food shortages are members of the “Greatest Generation” and their parents. For the most part, they have left us, taking with them the memories of empty supermarket shelves. When the issue has never been personalized, it’s easy to be complacent.
The Family Farm Alliance has called for an assessment of the collective impacts of agricultural land and water changes in western states over the last 10 years, as well as predicted trends. A study of this sort may provide the type of hard findings that may help wake up policy makers on the “big picture” ramifications of this issue.
Local study could help
There may be benefit to all of our interests for our community leaders to prepare a similar, local assessment that could form the basis of an agriculture-urban policy that shows how things should work in the West.
This effort could identify local land-use characteristics and show where the development is occurring, how much agricultural land has been lost (to development and to environmental restoration purposes), and describe potential implications. It is very possible that the results would give comfort to people and reinforce the city position toward growth of the urban area.