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Klamath Basin farmers, ranchers face tough water year

Issue Date: February 5, 2014 by Christine Souza, Ag Alert, California Farm Bureau Federation

Modoc County cattle rancher Lucky Ackley is concerned about the lack of water supply in the Klamath Basin, but said he does not want to reduce the size of his herd.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Balancing the varied irrigation needs of the Klamath Basin can be difficult in a normal water year with a good-sized snowpack, and the balancing act becomes even more challenging during a multi-year drought, as water officials, farmers and ranchers, and others work to find solutions to carry all water users through the season.

Modoc County cattle rancher Lucky Ackley, whose irrigation water comes from Upper Klamath Lake through the Klamath Reclamation Project, said he is not optimistic about the coming season and is worried about lost income.

"I have all the water year forecast graphs for the Klamath Basin to show where we are compared to where historically we should be. If things don't change drastically, this could be one for the record books," said Ackley, who raises cattle and farms 2,000 acres of alfalfa and seed grain in the Klamath Basin. "The toll of this will be unsurpassed. I know that our counterparts down south find themselves in the same boat. This state will once again remember how important agriculture still is to its economy. I just hope it survives this hard learning curve."

Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said its best estimate is that the supply for the Klamath Project will be significantly less than 50 percent of average and perhaps as low as 25 percent.

"The flip side is that we can heal fast if Mother Nature cooperates," he added. "We still have time to improve the situation with more snow and rain."

Precipitation in the Upper Klamath Basin and inflows to project reservoirs have been well below average for the 2014 water year to date, reported Don Bader, acting area manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Project, who added that the snowpack was only 23 percent of median as of last week.

"The water supply available to the Klamath Project during 2014 will depend on the amount of precipitation between now and April 1, when Reclamation will determine and announce the 2014 water supply," Bader said.

Rancher Ackley said project customers typically consider a full supply to be between 360,000 and 400,000 acre-feet, which can come from surface water or a combination of surface and groundwater.

"We are somewhere around 200,000 acre-feet short right now," Ackley said. "I can cover my farm ground with my wells with or without assistance, but when I turn the wells on and irrigate my own ground, that increases my cost about $360 to $380 an acre. This year it will be worse, because there is zero moisture in the ground, so we will have to pump more just to make up for what we don't already have."

As for his cattle, Ackley said, a lack of spring rains needed to encourage the grass to grow would mean he'd be pasturing the cattle on his own hay fields—fields that he would rather use as income.

"If I don't get assistance from the Bureau of Reclamation (via a Water Usage Mitigation Program) to pump water onto my own fields, then I'm going to do it myself and take the full brunt of the cost. And if the range doesn't produce what it should, my cows will be back on my private land, and that will take away income from hay that I should be getting," Ackley said. "I'm not selling my cow herd. I'll feed up every flick of hay I bale before I sell the cow herd."

Meant to benefit protected fish and provide irrigators with water supply certainty earlier in the season, a joint biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service allows for daily calculations for flows and lake elevations that mimic actual hydrologic conditions. The opinion began last year and remains in effect through 2023.

"What is good about it is that we will know in April what we have to work with," Addington said. "Even though we expect that number to not be great, at least we will have a number, something we haven't had before."

Klamath Basin irrigators were denied water in 2001 so agencies could benefit fish protected under the Endangered Species Act. To prevent a future shutoff, irrigators negotiated the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which aims to establish sustainable water supplies and power rates for irrigators, restore fish habitat and help the Klamath tribes. The agreement also includes the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement, which calls for removing all or part of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. Addington said he expects legislation to implement the agreements will be introduced this spring.

Rancher Scott Murphy of Etna, president of the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District, expressed concern about impacts to farmers along the Scott and Shasta rivers once the dams are removed.

"We don't have an elaborate irrigation system, yet if those dams do come out, there's a good possibility that agencies are going to be looking at the Shasta and Scott rivers to help mitigate the lack of water that they are going to have flowing down the Klamath River," Murphy said. "If the dams do come out, they probably need to consider updating our irrigation systems, which are antiquated and could stand some improvements."

Rancher Jeff Fowle of Etna said this year's water situation remains grim for irrigators along the Scott and Shasta.

"In the Scott Valley, we are under 10 percent of average and the snowpack is minimal to nonexistent. Most all of the tributaries to the Scott River are extremely low, and several are still not even flowing," Fowle said. "We're in some dire straits, barring a major or several major events between now and April."

Fowle explained that having to rebuild a herd of cattle is a multi-year investment for a rancher: "You are looking at basically three years to rebuild a herd again."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of 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.



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