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Conservation Service helps cut demand for river water

Published March 7, 2004

By Bruce I. Knight

Guest columnist

I welcome the opportunity to respond to a commentary that appeared in the Klamath Falls Herald and News Feb. 16 and clarify the role of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the federal government's response to the drought in the Klamath River Basin. The conservation service is working with conservation districts and other partners in Oregon and California to provide technical and financial assistance to farmers, ranchers, and tribes to mitigate the impacts of drought on agriculture in the Klamath River Basin.

The core objectives of our conservation district partners in this effort are to decrease water demand, increase water storage, improve water quality, and develop fish and wildlife habitat. It is critical that all of these issues be addressed if the resource issues of the Basin are to be resolved.

A significant part of conservation service's assistance in the Klamath River Basin is the five-year program mentioned in the commentary. This is the ground and surface water conservation program, part of the environmental quality incentives program of the 2002 Farm Bill.

Congress provided $50 million for this program to help landowners in the basin use less water to grow crops. The individual farmer decides which water-conserving measures are right for his or her operation. The conservation practice chosen must save water as required by law.

Several types of water conservation measures are being used by Klamath Basin farmers, such as conversion from flood systems to more efficient sprinkler and other irrigation systems. This conversion results in an average of 30 percent on-farm water savings.

You can be assured that taxpayer dollars being spent in the Klamath River Basin are saving water. So far, with conservation service's technical and financial assistance, farmers in the Basin during the past two years have conserved 6,700 acre-feet of irrigation water on more than 16,000 acres of land, helping them meet the needs of their crops and increase their profits while using water more efficiently.

These water savings reduce the demand for Klamath River water.

Some of these water conservation measures do impact groundwater, not by increasing net water use, but by reducing the return flows to groundwater. Some farmers are able to use groundwater for irrigation instead of using river water, but if they have installed water conservation measures, this will still result in on-farm water savings.

Since March 2002, when the president created the Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group, the conservation service and the Department of Agriculture have been working with other federal agencies to better address the water resource and related issues of the Klamath Basin.

During these two years, NRCS and its conservation partners have made significant progress in helping farmers and ranchers in the Klamath River Basin find ways of improving the condition of natural resources on their land while benefiting the wildlife and environment of the basin. It is critical that we continue working together so that agricultural producers, with the assistance of Farm Bill programs, can maintain the sustainability of their lands with conservation practices that are cost-effective and help maintain a viable agriculture sector.

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