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Lake level tied to new formula


Published April 23, 2004


The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is testing a new formula for managing water supplies in Upper Klamath Lake, hoping that increased flexibility will help the agency avoid predicaments that sometimes result from rigid water level requirements.

In a departure from recent years, the Bureau no longer has minimum lake levels it must achieve at certain points during the summer.

Instead, the Bureau's lake level targets will slide up and down according to how much water is flowing into the lake as the season progresses.

"This allows us to react to the (type of) year we are having, instead of making a direct comparison to what happened in the past," said Cecil Lesley, Project operations chief.

The new formula has the approval of irrigators and fishery interests, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting endangered fish in the Klamath River Basin.

This year's irrigation season began April 1 with the opening of the A Canal headgates, and the switch to a new formula is already making a difference.

If the old lake level requirements - designed to protect endangered suckers in the lake - were in effect right now, the lake would be about an inch below what would be needed to achieve the end-of-April target.

That would have meant changes on the Project.

"We would be cranking back on irrigation in the Project, or pumping (from wells) like mad," Lesley said.

The old lake level targets for the end of each month were based on how the lake fluctuated during the decade between 1989 and 1999.

The new way of calculating the desired level of Upper Klamath Lake has been approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and is being tested this summer. After this irrigation season, the Bureau and the Fish and Wildlife Service will evaluate the process.

If there is trouble mid-season, the Fish and Wildlife Service can call for a switch back to the old system. But officials say that's not likely.

The new system doesn't have the pitfalls that the old "stair step" method did, said Curt Mullis, manager of the Klamath Falls' Fish and Wildlife Service office.

Under the old system, end-of-month lake level requirements for the summer were set early in the year, when the Bureau established the water year type.

Problems developed when inflow failed to meet predictions. When that happened last June, the Bureau determined at one point it would have to shut down irrigation for at least five days in order to make a minimum lake level.

A compromise with the Fish and Wildlife Service avoided the shut-off, but the incident alarmed irrigators.

Using the new system will allow even more flexibility than the make-shift Band-Aid put on the system last summer, Bureau officials said.

"It's like having 60 year types, and changing depending on what has happened," said John Hicks, water conservation specialist for the Bureau.

Inflow to the lake this month has been much lower than expected, despite a spate of rain in the last week, Lesley said. With the changes, the lake level target now adjusts to the unexpected inflow changes - mimicking nature.

The new formula provides more reliable water supplies for various users, said Christine Karas, deputy Project manager.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the new system should avoid the drama of last June.

"The bottom line is it gives you more flexibility to deal with unexpected inflow," he said.

Glen Spain, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said now there won't be the rapid changes that could cause havoc for irrigators as the Bureau first tries to meet lake level and flow requirements down the Klamath River.

There also will be more flexibility in managing water in the lower Klamath River, where flows are managed to protect threatened coho salmon. Before, the Bureau would ratchet down flows on the river every couple of weeks during the summer. Now the flows will change about every five days.

"It makes sense for the fish because this is how natural systems work - they fluctuate a bit," Spain said.




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