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
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
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.
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
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
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,"
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
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,"
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