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4/21/2006 6:00:00 AM 
Tulelake farmer Rob Crawford explains how charges for operation and maintenance are billed to irrigators within the Klamath project.
Water users describe efficiency of complex Klamath system

By STEVE KADEL Capital Press

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – The Klamath Reclamation Project is a complex system of canals that routes water from Upper Klamath Lake on the west and Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoir on the east through cropland and wildlife refuges, eventually returning most of it to the Klamath River.

It was one of the first federal reclamation projects created under the Reclamation Act of 1902. As a result, several marshes and lakes were turned into land that could be farmed, while other areas became waterfowl refuges.

The “project,” as it is known locally, also is controversial.

Environmentalists contend it takes water that the Klamath River needs for salmon. That assertion was voiced last week by Oregon Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman Jim McCarthy after Oregon and California public utility commissions voted to raise project irrigators’ electrical rates to a level paid by other irrigators.

“The return of a level playing field for irrigation in the basin will encourage more efficient water use, and that will have a positive effect on flows in the river and help salmon,” he said. “The subsidized rates basically encouraged waste and allowed irrigation on marginal land.”

Project farmers bristle when they hear such comments. Last week, after the PUC decisions, the Klamath Water Users Association took news reporters on a tour of the sprawling U.S. Bureau of Reclamation project’s plumbing system.

Bob Gasser, a KWUA director, called the system highly efficient. It returns 93 percent of the water it takes from Upper Klamath Lake and empties it into the Klamath River. It also adds water from the east side that once flowed into a closed basin at Tule Lake.

What he calls the “93 percent utilization rate” compares with an average of 60 percent for other irrigation systems, Gasser said.

The project kept 25,000 acres of the 188,000 acres of crop and pastureland out of production from 1996 to 2000 for habitat restoration, he said.

“We’re trying to do everything we can because this is our livelihood,” Gasser said.

Greg Addington, the KWUA executive director, said improving conditions for salmon depends on an ecosystem approach rather than focusing attention only on the Klamath Project.

“Focusing on one aspect of a complex river and ocean ecosystem is irresponsible, negligent and will do nothing for the overall health and recovery of salmon,” Addington said.

“All stressors to fish – including dams, disease, predation, ocean conditions, drought, historic watershed and habitation modifications – must be considered.”

Many of today’s project farmers are descendants of homesteaders invited to take up reclaimed land. The first public lands became available in 1917 and continue to be farmed by relatives.

Of the 188,000 acres in the project, about two-thirds are in Oregon and one-third in California. Water is used seven to nine times before reaching the Klamath River, farmers said.

They also said the water is colder when it goes into the river than it is coming out of storage in Upper Klamath Lake.



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