KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (DTN) --
At more than 4,100 feet above sea level, the Upper
Klamath Lake is the largest freshwater body in
Oregon. The 160-square-mile lake already is
naturally high in phosphorous and other nutrients
because of historic volcanic activity in the region.
About 39% of all phosphorous
loading into Upper Klamath Lake comes from external
sources, according to information from Oregon State
University. The remaining 61% is naturally
But Upper Klamath Lake --
and the farmers who depend on it for their crops --
are now caught in a national effort to improve water
quality demanded by the Clean Water Act and enforced
by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Farmers who for the last
decade have felt the effects of the Endangered
Species Act limiting the quantity of water in their
area could be required to undertake what they
believe will be expensive and somewhat unrealistic
steps to improve water quality.
The farmers in the Klamath
Basin of southern Oregon and northern California are
being pressured to reduce pollution runoff of
agriculture nutrients. There has been a national
effort to require states to implement total maximum
daily loads, or TMDLs, of pollutants to meet safe
water quality standards in impaired waters. Impaired
waters -- such as Upper Klamath Lake -- are those
that the Clean Water Act has ordered to be listed
and have plans developed to help them since they are
"too polluted or otherwise degraded to meet the
water quality standards set by states, territories
or authorized tribes," according to the EPA.
The TMDL for uplands in the
Upper Klamath Lake watershed calls for a reduction
of 18% in external phosphorous loading. But just 4%
of total external loads come from agriculture
pumping; this drives fears that the burden to
improve water quality could fall disproportionately
on agriculture's shoulders.
"It's sort of the gorilla in
the room," said Greg Addington, executive director
of the Klamath Water Users Association. KWUA
represents U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Klamath
Project irrigators who draw their water from Upper
Klamath Lake north of Klamath Falls, Ore. The
project serves 210,000 acres of cropland. "The
headlines and the focus are on ESA and water
quantity, but this water quality thing is a big, big
Other parts of the country
have also been dealing with the water quality issue.
TMDLs are being established across the country,
including the Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast and
the historic Lake Champlain in the Northeast.
However, TMDLs could hit
Klamath Basin farmers particularly hard, and farmers
fear it's yet more federal bureaucracy that is
squeezing agriculture out of the area.
AGRICULTURE BEING SQUEEZED
An ESA-induced 2001 water
shutoff in the Klamath Basin led to financial and
personal losses for more than 1,200 farm families.
The shut-off came in response to concern about the
effects of low water levels on three endangered fish
Though TMDLs likely will
require farmers to reduce phosphorous runoff,
Addington said he questions whether the phosphorous
can be reduced enough to make a difference to the
Addington stressed that the
water is "poor when we get it, we divert it, we run
it over fields, which by the way plants use
phosphorus, so in a lot of times of the year we
actually take phosphorous out of the water. The
concern is it's one thing if we're talking about
spending a whole bunch of money to fix a problem
that we created. But you're talking about trying to
fix a naturally-occurring problem."
Demands on the basin's water
resources are well-documented. Previous stories in
this series have shown how the enforcement of the
ESA has hurt agriculture and the general economy in
the Klamath basin.
The ESA was the impetus for
an effort by environmentalists, irrigators, tribes,
government officials and others to protect three
endangered fish species by requiring water levels to
be maintained in the Upper Klamath Lake.
Project irrigators draw
water from the lake, pump it around to users and put
it back into Klamath River.
"But now if they say they
don't like the quality of the water you're putting
back in ... our concern is that the United States
will say OK, we'll put in a $100 million water
treatment facility so we'll treat that water before
it goes back to Klamath River," Addington said.
"Well, guess who pays for that? It's not the
taxpayer, it's project farmers here.
"What it really gets down to
is are we making the water worse. And the answer, in
my opinion, is no. So the water we get, the water
quality before we ever divert is terrible from a
fish standpoint. It's just high in nutrients, it
always has been and it always will be."
TMDL SCIENCE QUESTIONED
In 2002, about 33,000 salmon
were killed in the Lower Klamath River in northern
California. Warm water temperatures during a salmon
run about 160 miles downstream from the river's dams
were blamed. Environmentalists and others seized the
moment to make a case for the need to improve water
Yreka, Calif., farmer and
rancher Rex Cozzalio said the salmon run actually
recorded one of the best overall returns that
season. However, there was a known methamphetamine
dump in the river at the time and the kill was
finished before the water was tested.
John Menke, a retired
professor from the University of California-Davis,
and a rancher in the Scott Valley in northern
California, said he questions the TMDL science being
used in the region.
The TMDL for the Shasta
River in Scott Valley in California, for example, is
being implemented to help improve water quality and
salmon runs. However, Menke said there is no data
that shows the endangered Coho salmon ever made runs
in the Shasta River, or that higher water
temperatures are caused by anything other than
naturally warm water in the region.
That's important because the
ground water may never allow low enough temperatures
for Coho salmon summer rearing, Menke said.
Although state officials are
aware of the naturally high phosphorous conditions
in the basin, Addington said litigation drives TMDLs
in Oregon and California.
In February 2009,
environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force
California water officials to implement TMDLs for 17
water bodies in northern California.
"So you have environmental
groups that sue the government and say you're not
cleaning the water fast enough under the Clean Water
Act," Addington said, adding that regulators have
only so much time to do a TMDL.
"The regulators, their
priority is to meet the court-ordered timeline, not
to do it right. And that's unfortunate. The
consequences are going to be significant