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

June Water Shutoff
Pact between tribe and federal agencies dropped UKL levels

  By Kehn Gibson, Staff Writer

On the day Klamath Project irrigators were told the Project would be shut down to meet required levels in Upper Klamath Lake, more than 2,000 acre-feet of water was released over Iron Gate Dam.

The rate of the release exceeded that called for in the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2003 Operations Plan, which set a release of 1,300 acre-feet per day. The same plan also includes the minimum lake levels that Klamath Project Manager Dave Sabo told irrigators on June 25 he could not violate under “explicit directives” that came from within the Department of Interior.

In the days following the shut down announcement, a decision reversed after the White House contacted the Interior officials, the releases continued at a similar rate.

According to records obtained by The Tri-County Courier, the releases at Iron Gate have consistently exceeded the Operations Plan schedule since they began last May. The releases continue today. Sabo said the releases will continue at a similar rate through September.

Sabo said the release schedule was modified in May after he was approached by the National Marine Fisheries Service, now called NOAA Fisheries, and representatives of the Yurok Tribe. “We had reached an agreement with NMFS and the Tribe to provide higher flows downstream,” Sabo said. “NMFS can change the schedule any way they want. The water went down because I had additional water from inflows into the lake.” When the Bureau saw that the July 1 lake level as set in the Operations Plan was going to be “busted,” Sabo said he contacted NMFS to seek flexibility in the Iron Gate release rate. He was not successful. “I was told ‘no way,’” Sabo said. “We will release 950 cubic feet per second through July, and 1,000 cubic feet per second through August.”

Under the current water year designation, the Operations Plan calls for an average of 730 cfs to be released over Iron Gate in July, and 979 cfs in August. Should the water year be changed back to “dry” from its current designation as “below average,” the disparity widens. The Operations Plan calls for releases of 515 cfs in July and 560 cfs in August under a “dry” water year schedule.

On June 13, Sabo’s office upgraded the water year type from “dry’ to “below average.” By June 20, he said Bureau hydrologists realized the lake level would fall below 4,142.1 by June 30, the level and date set in the Operations Plan for a “below average” water year. Sabo said the lake would be about one inch below the June 30 level, or approximately 5,800 acre-feet less than what was called for.

Because of the agreement, more than 31,800 acre-feet of water above what was called for in the Operations Plan was sent downstream during the month of June. Although Sabo said his office was surprised by the June’s crisis in the lake level, a man who has spent nearly two decades working and studying agriculture in the Basin was not. “It was no surprise to me,” said Dr. Kenneth A. Rykbost, who recently retired from his post at Oregon State University’s Experimental Station in Klamath Falls. “I could see from the numbers we were headed for a wreck. “Everybody is looking at the lake levels, but if you looked at what was happening downstream you could see this coming.”

Irrigators were told this week that water deliveries to the Project will be trimmed by a third, to just over 2,000 acre-feet per day in order to keep the levels in Upper Klamath Lake above the standards set in the Operation Plan..

Despite season-long water conservation efforts that includes thousands of dollars spent on upgrading wheel lines and pumps, voluntary cutbacks, and nearly 17,000 acres of land idled to create a “water bank,” irrigators must now work together in an unprecedented way. Although there are no certainties that the costs of pumping groundwater to replace water that the Bureau says they will not deliver, wells operated by the Tulelake Irrigation District and numerous private wells must now be used to keep an estimated $200 million worth of Basin crops viable.

Farmers whose fields can benefit from groundwater supplies must leave whatever Project water there is alone, so that neighbors who cannot use groundwater can access the traditional water source. “I will do what I can, and I know I’m not alone,” said an alfalfa farmer who asked to remain unidentified “But, bottom line is, my crop feeds my family — my neighbor’s doesn’t.”


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