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Klamath farmers face continuing water questions

Issue Date: January 2, 2008 by Christine Souza Assistant Editor, AgAlert, California Farm Bureau Federation

With Mt. Shasta towering in the background, the Klamath Basin may once again be facing a tight water supply situation.

Tulelake grower Sid Staunton, who has farmed in the Klamath Basin for the past 35 years and who was personally impacted by the water shut-off of 2001, said he would rather not experience it again. Now, with the 2008 growing season fast approaching, he and other farmers are worried about the development of new federal biological opinions that will guide water deliveries and impact the region's agriculture for the next 10 years.

"During the water shut-off of 2001 we gave up production on over 60 percent of our farm base. We had to buy water, install a well, we implement a lot of different measures to survive," said Staunton, who grows potatoes, onions, wheat, peppermint and alfalfa. "For me to sit and hope for a big winter so I get to farm again, that is pretty idiotic when I've got to make investments to stay modern in today's current agriculture."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently released a final biological assessment, which evaluates the potential effects of the proposed operation of the bureau's Klamath Water Project on listed species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency determined that the operation of the project may affect the threatened coho salmon found in the Klamath River and the endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers found in Upper Klamath Lake, therefore the Bureau of Reclamation has requested a formal re-consultation with the regulating agencies--the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The time frame for the final biological opinion is from April 1, 2008, through March 31, 2018.

The Klamath Water Users Association, the organization that represents Klamath Irrigation Project farmers and ranchers, has pushed for a re-consultation ever since 2002 when biological opinions that are currently being used became official.

"We've taken a look at this biological assessment and we're nervous because there are still some pretty high flow requirements. In some months it is less, but in the summer months when water is critical the flows are either the same or higher than what we have now," said Greg Addington, Klamath Water Users Association executive director. "There is some more flexibility built into this with lake levels, but our big fear is that it won't translate into any flexibility for project operations. It just gets sucked down the river for more flows. Every year it is just touch and go for us. Every month it is touch and go for us. It is no way to try and exist."

Staunton said it is impossible to be economically viable in farming if water deliveries are cut during the middle of the growing season.

"We can't afford to take that risk. About 50 percent of a farmer's costs are in that crop with the planting and rise to 75 percent by the middle of the season," Staunton said. "Yet they are going to tell you, 'each month we are going to look at a level--and it is a hypothetical level--it might save fish, it might not.'"

Staunton has been faced with challenges related to water in the Klamath Basin for the past 15-20 years and he said he remains worried for future generations who wish to farm.

"I have a son who is 22 who really enjoys farming. He came back home to the farm this year and worked a full season. I'm basically going to pat him on the back and say, 'go try the world and make sure before you do farming,'" Staunton said.

Third-generation farmer Scott Seus of Tulelake, said it is challenging to plan for this year without certainty of a stable water supply.

"Where in the history of any of this related to endangered species or re-consultations has it ever gone our way? It always means more regulations or less of what you need to make your farm work." Seus said. "We are not excited about most of what we see in the biological assessment, but at this point it is simply an assessment. If it is any glimpse into the future, then we have some very major concerns."

Seus, who grows onions, horseradish, peppermint and alfalfa, said the re-consultation process also creates doubt among bankers and contracted customers that farmers may not be able to deliver.

"Having no water is a threat and is certainly something that bankers look at. It goes beyond the bankers; it also goes to the people that we do business with," Seus said.

Seus recalls that the 2001 water cut-off impacted the entire Klamath Basin community.

"We definitely watched a lot of our neighbors go hungry that year," Seus said. "We were fortunate. We were able to get groundwater and provide it not only to our neighbors, but also to the federal wildlife.

Congressman Wally Herger, R-Chico, who recalls how many of the 1,400 family farms in the Klamath Basin were impacted when the water was shut-off in 2001, expressed concern about the pending re-consultation process.

"We have spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars working to improve the fish habitat in the Klamath Basin. The taxpayers have a lot of money invested there, I think it is upwards in the vicinity of $500 million, so there better be some results," Herger said. "I can't understate enough how important it is that these federal agencies get it right because this document will control the operations of our irrigation in the Klamath Water Project for the next 10 years."

While farmers in the Klamath Basin are awaiting for the biological opinions, a recent report by the National Research Council (NRC) focused on two studies that attempted to better understand the Klamath River basin in Oregon and California. The report concluded that both studies - one completed by Utah State University and the other by the federal Bureau of Reclamation - would be more useful to decision makers if a comprehensive analysis of the basin were conducted to identify all research and management needs.

Dr. William L. Graf, professor of geography at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Klamath review committee said, "Science is being done in bits and pieces and there is no conceptual model that gives a big picture perspective of the entire Klamath River basin and its many components, as a result, the integration of individual studies - such as the two examined by the committee - into a coherent whole has not taken place, and it is unlikely to take place under the present scientific and political arrangements."

Water users have long agreed with the NRC report's conclusions about the importance of downstream tributaries to salmon health. They also support the committee's finding that a comprehensive approach is what's needed on the Klamath.

"This is encouraging news, because this type of philosophy underscores the approach we have been advocating for many years," said Luther Horsley, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. "We have consistently advocated that the challenges of the Klamath River can only be solved on a coordinated, watershed-wide basis."

Klamath Water Users Association indicated, however that media headlines and reaction from special interest activists regarding the report, focus on sensationalism rather than on the true content of the report.

It's even more frustrating when we are bending over backward to try to work with parties we have been in conflict with in the past," Addington said.

In the early 1990s, when the Klamath Basin experienced one of its driest years on record, water usage and protecting fish species became a great concern. Prior to that time, Seus said, farming had been done the same way for generations with flood irrigation. Since that time, farmers have changed their practices by conserving and using water more efficiently.

"Klamath Basin farmers are an innovative group of agriculturists whose hearts are in not just farming for this generation, but for generations to come and we'll do what has to be done to protect that," Seus said.

In recent years, irrigators have supported the following steps to benefit the environment and protect fish species (and in some cases paid for improvements):

  • More than $500 million in federal funds has been spent in the Klamath River watershed since 2002, including for lake and river restoration and habitat improvement projects.
  • Construction of a $12 million fish screen at the A-Canal, the Klamath Water Project's primary diversion point.
  • Construction and installation of "sucker friendly" fish passage at Link River Dam.
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program provided $50 million in matching funds. Local landowners took advantage of this program and cost-shared on thousands of projects to improve irrigation efficiency and conserve water.
  • Landowners in the Tulelake and Lower Klamath areas have developed "walking wetlands" as a rotation to traditional crops.
  • Since the early 1990s, thousands of acres of productive farmland has been converted to wetlands to support water quality and habitat improvement.
  • In the past five years, Klamath Basin irrigators have contributed up to 100,000 acre-feet of water per year to the water bank for environmental purposes.

The final biological assessment is available online at www.usbr.gov/mp/KBAO.

For more information, contact Jon Hicks at the Bureau of Reclamation, at (541) 880-2561 or e-mail at jhicks@mp.usbr.gov.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item. Top

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