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Flooded farmer fishes for implements
Klamath wheat fields lie under 3 to 10 feet of water

Tam Moore, Capital Press 8/8/06

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - With his shorts, wet-suit top, sunglasses and baseball cap, you might mistake the man at the helm of the pontoon workboat for a fisherman.

Ron McGill is that, but he's fishing for farm implements submerged since the Geary dike crumbled, letting Upper Klamath Lake roll over the nearly 1,700 acres of cropland he leased from the Running Y Ranch and the Geary Family Trust.

Fishing turned urgent last week, as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation drew down Oregon's largest lake to meet the combination of irrigation and downstream fishery water demands. Lifting the submerged implements with improvised floats didn't work as they struck roads and drainage structures.

Instead, McGill's crew had to drag each piece across the flooded field, pulled by a line anchored to a parked bulldozer and hauled by a truck.

"We don't want to be doing this, but we do want the sympathy" from others aware of the task, McGill said as he took a break after rigging a 600-foot line.

Recovery progressed at about one piece a day last week.

When the dike failed June 7, McGill had about 1,200 acres sown to spring wheat. Foreman Mike Gehon said there were three more fields to plant in the big tract of reclaimed land called Caledonia Marsh. The submerged equipment was positioned to work those three fields.

McGill said the break came when Upper Klamath Lake was at maximum elevation.

He said water depths in the flooded area ranged from 3 to 10 feet last week.

And while he waited for lawyers and others to separate out the liability for his failed crop and the dike failure, he predicted that the breach may never be repaired. The pressure is on to increase water storage capacity for Upper Klamath Lake, McGill said, and the dike failure gives the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation a ready candidate for additional storage.

When the dike broke, Reclamation gave a hasty estimate of 20,000 acre feet of water flowing into Caledonia Marsh. McGill said knowing the actual depths of the land, storage could be much greater than that first estimate.

Meanwhile, Klamath County's emergency services department is working on a plan to get inspection and regular maintenance on the estimated 45 miles of other dikes surrounding the 90,000-acre lake. A survey by a local newspaper found there has been no coordinated plan for decades. Old-timers said dike maintenance was transferred to private landowners in Depression times, with the exception of the Geary Ranch, which wanted California Oregon Power Co. to continue the maintenance fronting its property.

PacifiCorp, successor to COPCO, had maintenance responsibility when the breach occurred. McGill said the company always responded when he spotted deterioration of the dike. A maintenance crew was working when the earth fill crumbled this June.

For the second month in a row, Reclamation was unable to meet lake elevations required in a 2002 biological opinion designed to save habitat for sucker fish under protection of the Endangered Species Act. The July 31 elevation was 4,140.35 feet above sea level at midafternoon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife target elevation for month's end was 4,141.5 feet.

The agency gave Reclamation permission to miss the June 30 elevation, caused in part by displacement of water into the 2,000 acres flooded by the dike breach. In July, Reclamation said inflows dropped more than expected, creating other challenges to meeting lake elevations.

- Friday, August 4, 2006

Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His e-mail address is tmoore@capitalpress.com.


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