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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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 June 23, 2006

Greg Jones, a Southern Oregon University professor and specialist on the impact of climate on the economy, walks on a bridge crossing the Talent Irrigation Ditch in Ashland. He and Jim Pendleton, Talent Irrigation District director, who have been appointed to a governor’s committee on climate change, say districts may have to look for ways to preserve and store water in the future. (Mail Tribune / Jim Craven)



By John Darling for the Medford Mail Tribune

If global warming causes earlier melting of snowpack, local irrigation systems could face a hugely expensive project of putting water in pipelines instead of ditches — and greatly increasing storage capacity to catch more winter rain.

That's the opinion of Southern Oregon University professor Greg Jones and Talent Irrigation District Director Jim Pendleton, who have been named to the new Climate Change Integration Group by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Both caution, however, that climate models have not mapped all the variables, a necessary step in accurately predicting the impacts of climate change.

"I truly believe we're seeing more and more climate change," said Jones, a specialist in viticulture, orchards and the impact of climate on economy. "We're seeing more rain in heavier events, instead of spread out, as it has been historically. If climate models are correct, it could produce earlier snowmelt, instead of having water available as needed."

Pendleton, who is president of the Oregon Water Resources Council, a statewide group of irrigation districts, said many crops, including pears, onions, sugar beets and seed crops, need water through September.

"We rely on snowmelt, and anything that makes the snow melt earlier would be disastrous for irrigation districts or users that don't have storage," said Pendleton. "If water releases (from mountains) early and isn't available in the summer, it would be a huge change in cropping patterns."

Jones called the irrigation ditches of the Rogue Valley "extremely inefficient" because they're open to the sky, allowing for much evaporation. Pendleton estimated evaporation at 10 to 30 percent from ditches.

"TID will need to be enclosed," noted Jones, adding that funding would have to come from the federal government.

Such an undertaking would have to be authorized by Congress and be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, said Pendleton.

Jones said the political will for such changes is not there yet. "That's one of the big problems with climate change," he said. "We're all waiting for the government to make changes, but unfortunately governments aren't very efficient or fast — and as soon as we change something that causes an economic challenge, we tend to vote out those in power."

Pendleton noted, "Greg is probably right, that the mindset is that you wait till it slaps you in the face before you do anything."

In addition to enclosing irrigation ditches — TID has 130 miles of open canals — increasing storage in upgraded or new reservoirs would help ensure water in late summer months, should global warming models prove correct, Pendleton said.

Water for Irrigation, Streams and Economy, a regional consortium of governments and water systems, is now working on plans for enclosing all irrigation laterals (feeder pipes), as well as enhancing storage, he said.

Dan Keppen, executive director of Family Farm Alliance in Klamath Falls and a member of the climate change group, said he's not a diehard proponent of the global greenhouse theory. But if the data bear out higher temperatures and less summer snowpack, "then your intuition tells you that means you need to capture more water for later use."

The problem is worsened, he added, by increased development in the West without providing much more water supply — thus taking more water from agriculture.

Enclosing irrigation ditches is often resisted by residents, who want open ditches for aesthetics. The ditches also provide drinking water (CORRECTION: "provide habitat") for more than 400 species, especially smaller ones such as snakes, frogs, muskrats and birds, said Keppen.

The climate-change group, a mix of university and agency scientists, business and environmental leaders, agriculture and forest leaders and others, continues the work of the 2004 Governor's Advisory Group on Global Warming.

That earlier task force, part of a regional approach to controlling greenhouse gases, found a decline in snowpack and an increase in annual precipitation and rising sea levels affecting the Central and Northern Oregon coast.

The group predicted temperature increases by as much as three to six degrees over the next 40 years, more summer drought, declining snowpack, rising sea levels and forests more vulnerable to insects, disease and fire. It also said lower elevation ski areas could be at risk 

The new task force has "a lot of good scientists," said Jones, who will give the governor and other leaders some reliable data on which to base planning and public pronouncements. Jones and Pendleton said there would be a lot more to report on climate trends and economic impacts after its first meeting, set for June 27 in Salem.

"No one wants to preach gloom and doom, but we need a group like this to talk about climate change," said Jones. "It's like acid rain, ozone depletion, leaded gas and DDT. There was no reaction — we didn't start dealing with it till there was compelling evidence."

The panel includes members from Oregon Business Association, the Climate Trust, Portland Metro, Portland Office for Sustainable Development, Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University, Oregon Department of Human Services, Associated Oregon Industries, Weyerhaeuser, Nike and Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area, among others.

"It is very important to the economic and physical health of our state that we understand and address problems associated with climate change," the governor, a Democrat, said in a news release. "We have taken strong measures on several fronts to combat this threat, but we need the benefit of advice from a single group in order to make the most of our efforts."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.






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