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Ore. gov seeks aid for farmers ahead of water deal

By JEFF BARNARD, Mercury News March 4, 2010

GRANTS PASS, Ore.—About 1,300 farmers in a Klamath Basin irrigation project are waiting to hear whether drought conditions will leave enough water to plant crops this year without help from a landmark agreement designed to share scarce water between fish and farms. Gov. Ted Kulongoski is headed to Klamath Falls on Tuesday to be briefed by federal authorities on what is being done to allow irrigation of 200,000 acres along the Oregon-California border while meeting federal requirements for protected fish.

Even if some flexibility can be found to help threatened suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in the Klamath River, "it is likely that drought conditions will require significant reduction of irrigation deliveries to the farming community," Kulongoski wrote in a letter Wednesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Without some good spring rains, as much as 80 percent of the Klamath Reclamation Project could be without water this year, said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association.

He said it is particularly tough on farmers to have to face a drought with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement not yet approved. The agreement is part of a two-part deal to remove dams from the river to help salmon.

"To have this year right out of the chute...," Addington said. "Our interest is getting our guys through this so they can enjoy the (benefits of the agreement) in the future, and not having foreclosures and bankruptcies right away."

Signed two weeks ago in Salem after five years of negotiations, the restoration agreement offers drought provisions such as storing more water in reservoirs over the winter, paying farmers to leave their land idle, and buying water from wells. Farmers would know what to expect by March 1 instead of April when irrigation season starts.

The agreement requires approval and funding from Congress, and is likely to be phased in over 10 years.

Kulongoski and state water authorities will consider a drought declaration next week, which would open up low-interest loans and other federal programs to farmers. Mike Carrier, a natural resources adviser for the governor, said Kulongoski was looking into other state and federal programs to help farmers.

Kulongski also asked Salazar to authorize Interior agencies to work with Oregon and California on developing the drought plan called for in the restoration agreement, even though it has not yet been approved by Congress.

Snowpack is about 30 percent below normal and Upper Klamath Lake, the irrigation project's main reservoir, has been running about the same water level as in 2001, when drought forced the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to shut off water to the project to leave enough water for fish.

Water was restored later in the year, but it was too late to save many of the region's crops, which include potatoes, onions, grain, and alfalfa.

When full irrigation was restored the next year, tens of thousands of adult salmon died in the Klamath River from diseases related to low and warm water.

Widespread desire to avoid a repeat led to the restoration agreement signed by farmers, Indian tribes, the governors of Oregon and California, fishermen and conservation groups.

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