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Little east side water to go around

April 14, 2005


Langell Valley Irrigation District Manager John Nichols walks along remnants of the old earthen dam at Clear Lake Reservoir Tuesday. Behind him is the new concrete dam, but low water levels at the lake will keep the headgates from opening for irrigators downstream.

CLEAR LAKE - Langell Valley irrigators are having to figure out how to get through the growing season with little or no water from Clear Lake.

Options include shipping cattle down to California, tapping wells and searching the hay markets for the best price.

"It's going to be pretty doggone tough," said Spud Hammerich, who helps his father run cattle and grow crops on about 1,000 acres normally irrigated with water from Clear Lake.

This year they'll rely on wells drilled in 1992, which was the last time Clear Lake was too low to yield any water for farmers.

Hammerich said his family was lucky to get water from their wells. Some landowners put down wells but failed to find water, and some had to sell off cattle, the main agricultural product on the Klamath Reclamation Project's east side, made up of the Langell Valley and Horsefly irrigation districts near Bonanza.


Langell Valley Irrigation District's 16,300 acres are fed by Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoir, while Horsefly's 10,000 acres depend mostly on tail water left in the Lost River after irrigation in the Langell Valley District.

Pasture and hay are the predominant crops, with most of the forage going to beef and dairy cattle.

In 2001, when most of the Klamath Project was shut down because of low water supplies in Upper Klamath Lake, irrigators near Bonanza enjoyed a full supply because of holdover storage in Clear Lake and Gerber.

There even was a surplus of water in Clear Lake, which federal managers used to boost water levels in Tule Lake for the protection of endangered suckers.

But in the years since, the lake hasn't had a chance to refill. This year, streamflow forecasts indicate the lake will receive only 37 percent of average inflow.

"We shouldn't even be out of water this year, but they let it go a couple of years back," Hammerich said.

A cold, sharp wind blew across Clear Lake dam Tuesday as John Nichols, manager of the Langell Valley Irrigation District, surveyed the small pool of water behind a new concrete dam.

Built in 2002, the dam replaced an earthen dam put in from 1908 to 1910. The original dam turned the shallow natural lake into a reservoir capable of holding 526,770 acre-feet of water. But age and deterioration of the dam made federal officials leery of pushing its capacity past 300,000 acre-feet.

The new dam, built at a cost of $11 million, brought the reservoir's capacity back up to 500,000 acre-feet. But the lake hasn't gotten anywhere near full since then.

Water levels have never reached the top of the spillway at Clear Lake Reservoir.

"The lake should be called Mud Lake, not Clear Lake," Nichols said.

"The whole east side is going to be very dry," said Hank Cheyne, who has 1,100 acres of alfalfa in the Langell Valley district.

He said irrigators are going to have to try to conserve water as best they can. Some are seeding crops early, hoping to take advantage of spring rains.

Even with the conservation, it looks to be a short growing season. Most alfalfa farmers will probably get one cutting of hay, instead of the normal three cuttings.

"It's going to be a very tough on people," Cheyne said.

A Klamath Project operations plan issued by the Bureau of Reclamation earlier this month called for no water to be released from Clear Lake. The water must be held in the lake to meet guidelines for protecting endangered suckers.

But Langell Valley irrigators may benefit slightly from the government's attempts to help suckers. A plan to release water in an effort to prompt suckers to move into the deepest part of the lake will provide some water that can be used for irrigation.

Langell Valley could get anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 acre-feet of water created by the attempt to move the suckers, Buettner said. The drawdown of the reservoir would start around May 1 and go until no more water can be drained out.

"A lot of studies we have done show (suckers) need at least 3 feet of water, and they actually prefer greater than 6 feet," said Mark Buettner, a Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologist.

"We don't want to have to catch them. We are trying to minimize the number of fish we actually have to handle."

If the suckers don't respond to the lowering of the water, federal scientists will need to shock them with electricity, net them and move them to safer waters, he said.

Shallow water exposes the suckers to various birds, including pelicans that dine on fish of all sizes, including Lost River sucker adults that can weigh upwards of 10 pounds.

Buettner said shallow water also has less oxygen and more sediment in it, making the fish unhealthy and more vulnerable to lamprey, a parasitic, jawless fish that sucks nutrients from its host.

"There are a lot of direct and indirect effects of shallow water on suckers," he said.

Although the 4,000 to 10,000 acre-feet of water will be well short of the 30,000 acre-feet that usually goes to Langell Valley, it may be enough to get many alfalfa growers through at least one cutting, Nichols said.

This year hay is likely to be a precious commodity because of the drought gripping much of the Northwest.

"If they get a crop, they'll get a good price," Nichols said.

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