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Despite storms, Klamath Basin is dry

Issue Date: February 16, 2005

By Christine Souza
Assistant Editor

Although Mother Nature has dumped tremendous amounts of snow across the Sierra Nevada this winter, Klamath Basin farmers are facing another potential dry year unless there are some heavy winter storms in the weeks ahead.

Klamath Basin water officials point out that as of Feb. 1 the Klamath snowpack was less than 50 percent of average--a figure than is about 100 percent lower than the snowpack being measured in the Sierra.

"We need more water," said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken. "There is just a lot of concern because it is not looking like a really good year. There's just no snow."

McCracken said the Klamath Basin needs a couple of large storms to help increase the amount of water that could be delivered to basin irrigators.

"We have half of a winter left so there is always a chance that everything is going to improve, but right now there is less optimism than there could be," McCracken said. "We are keeping our fingers crossed."

Because of the possibility of a water shortage this year, many irrigators are electing to take part in the Bureau of Reclamation's 2005 water bank program. The water bank program is required by the National Marine Fisheries Service to increase flows down the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon. About one week before the Jan. 27 signup deadline, bureau officials expressed concern because they had received only 20 applications from farmers. But then the applications started pouring in and by the deadline, the bureau had received 234 applications which are now being evaluated.

"I have cautious optimism that we will receive enough applications," said Rae Olsen, public affairs officer for the bureau's Klamath Basin office. "We are still hopeful. The water business in the West is a business of optimists so we are hoping that we get a nice, wet February and March and that will help us in our quest to create a 100,000-acre-foot water bank."

In its third year, the bureau's 2005 water bank program must meet a requirement of 100,000 acre-feet. In the first two years of the program, irrigators successfully met the water bank requirements of 50,000-acre feet in the first year and 75,000 acre-feet in the second year. This year's requirement of 100,000 acre-feet will remain in place for the next five years.

"It is a huge challenge and we are systematically evaluating several different areas to see if they would be suitable for storage. Right now the lake has not filled yet," Olsen said. "So there are several challenges and they are all weather related."

The Klamath Basin water bank consists of several programs, including on- and off-project storage, groundwater pumping and dryland operation. To help meet the 100,000 acre-feet requirement this year, 50,000 acre-feet will come from land idling or the dryland operation program. To reach this goal, the bureau reports that about 28,000 acres must be idled by Klamath Basin irrigators. Individuals, groups of individuals, partnerships and companies willing to forego irrigation of their lands during this year's irrigation season will receive payment in exchange for their decision to idle land.

The remaining 50,000 acre-feet will come from 25,000 acre-feet of well water, 10,000 acre-feet from land idling above Upper Klamath Lake, and 15,000 acre-feet from storage on national wildlife refuges.

Although several months of potentially wet weather lie ahead, diminishing snow levels in Eastern Oregon, including the Klamath Basin, has water managers worried about summer river flow conditions.

Dennis Lynch of the U.S. Geological Survey reports that current and projected flows of 2005 may be the lowest observed in the Klamath area over the past five years.

"If these conditions continue, we may see inflows as low as 1992 and 1994," Lynch said. "However, more rain or snow could change these projections."

Lynch also noted that monitoring suggests low groundwater conditions, particularly in areas above Upper Klamath Lake and outside of the Klamath Project.

Bureau of Reclamation's Dave Sabo stressed to policy makers that Upper Klamath Lake must be filled as full as possible to meet all demands in the coming summer. The original Klamath Project operations plan discussed last fall proposed Iron Gate Dam releases of 1,000 cubic feet per second for February and March. Sabo has directed that these releases be dropped to 800 cubic feet per second.

(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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