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KBRT / Klamath Basin Rangeland trust: Water savings less than hoped in payment effort

2/23/2014, Herald and News by Dylan Darling

The federal government says a $1 million project that paid irrigators above Upper Klamath Lake not to water their pastures in 2002 cut water use by only half as much as the project's sponsors estimated.


The problem? The estimate didn't take into account how much water that native grasses and other vegetation would take up and allow to evaporate into the atmosphere.

The project began in the spring of 2002 and was one of the Bush administration's first efforts to find solutions to the struggle that had resulted in a water cutoff and national publicity in the Klamath Basin the year before.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, came to the Basin to announce the pilot project, which was initiated by the leaders of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust (KBRT), Jim Root and Kurt Thomas.

The idea was to pay water users not to irrigate and thus raise the level of Upper Klamath Lake.

After the first season, the trust leaders estimated the project allowed an extra 7,677 acre-feet of water to flow into the lake.

But the Bureau of Reclamation, which provided the funds for the water buy-out, estimated the amount of water saved at 2,908 acre-feet.

In a report made public last week, scientists for the U.S. Geological Survey concluded the Bureau was closer in its estimate.

"The KBRT analysis assumes that 'native' vegetation will not use groundwater after forbearance," the USGS report states. "We believe this assumption is incorrect and therefore KBRT overestimates the actual amount of water saved."

The trust is a tax-advantaged, non-profit entity set up to pursue conservation goals in the upper part of the Basin. Root and Thomas, too, have taken key roles in sponsoring talks among water users, the Klamath Tribes and other interests at the Shilo Inn, aimed at resolving issues related to the water struggle.

Root's daughter, Chrysten Lambert, director of the trust, said that when the project started, the Rangeland Trust had little information on how much water is consumed in irrigation.

"This area hasn't been monitored much, so it is going to be a while until we get a good data set," she said.

To make up for the lack of baseline data for the pilot project, she said, the Rangeland Trust used estimates made by two Oregon State University scientists - Richard Cuenca and Larry Mahrt - the trust contracted to help with the project.

In 2002, the irrigation water rights for 3,161 acres of pasture in the Wood River Valley were left in-stream, and cattle herd sizes on these properties were reduced by about 80 percent from historic levels, according to the Rangeland Trust Web site.

The Rangeland Trust used $1 million in federal money to pay property owners who participated in the project and to cover the costs of research and monitoring.

Dennis Lynch, regional director was unavailable for comment about the review and a Geological Survey scientist contacted by the Herald and News about the report said he couldn't comment.

John Rasmussen, a Bureau scientist, said the Rangeland Trust estimated twice as much water was saved from the cutting of evapotranspiration as the Bureau did. Evapotransportation is the loss of water from the soil both by evaporation and water vapor rising out of the plants that grow in the soil.

He too attributed the overestimate to a lack of data.

"What do you compare it to? What were they using before?" he said.

In their review, the Geological Survey scientists suggest that the Rangeland Trust build up data about the valley so it could have something with which to compare its findings. This could take several years.

Although the suggestion makes sense, Lambert said the immediate needs of the Basin weigh in as well.

She said we need to "start helping the system now instead of waiting several years before improving things."


Jim Root said the Geological Survey suggests that the Rangeland Trust hold off on forbearance and restoration activity for five to ten years while baseline data is collected.

"We disagree with that approach," Root said. "It may be accurate from a scientific point of view, but from a practical or political point of view, we feel like we need to be doing actual work during that five to ten year period."

He also said the Geological Survey recommends that the Rangeland Trust upgrades the equipment it uses. The upgrade would cost about $3 million.

"We are just not able to raise that kind of money," Root said.

And, he said, for the level of accuracy that the Rangeland Trust is shooting for, the current equipment will work.

Lambert said the water saving estimates for 2003's Rangeland Trust project, which was expanded to 6,400 acres, are more in line with the Bureau's estimates. About $1.9 million in federal money was spent on the project.

The Bureau is currently in negotiations with the Rangeland Trust for its contract for this year. Root has said he wants to expand the project to 20,000 to 30,000, acres on which cattle herds would be reduced by about 70 percent.

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