KBRT / Klamath Basin Rangeland trust: Water
savings less than hoped in payment effort
2/23/2014, Herald and News by
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
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
In a report made public last week, scientists for the U.S.
Geological Survey concluded the Bureau was closer in its
"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
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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