Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
Rationing signals grim times for water out West
On May 30, John Keys III, the former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, lost his life when the plane he was piloting crashed in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. That same day, irrigators on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley learned that they would have to undertake a severe water rationing plan that will dry up some of the most productive farmland in the world and impact a multi-billion dollar local economy.
I’ve had a lot of time recently to think about both of these sad developments. Earlier this month, I drove from Klamath Falls to Boise to attend the memorial service of Keys, a man I considered to be a close professional associate and personal friend. As commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, John visited the Klamath Basin several times during and following the Klamath Project irrigation curtailment in 2001.
John had a very impressive career with Reclamation, one that spanned 39 years. In 1998, he was appointed by President Bush as the national commissioner in Washington, D.C., where he served from 2001 to 2006.
John was a kind and gentle man, beloved by his family and friends. He died on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place, doing something he loved to do.
Driving to and from John’s service, I thought about how fortunate I was to be able to work with him, even if only for a few years.
Winding through the high desert of Eastern Oregon, I also spent much time brooding about my friends who manage and farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which is now bracing for a shock that will likely far exceed the devastation felt when Klamath Project irrigators lost their water in 2001.
Similar government regulations and court-ordered directives favoring fish over farmers will put the screws to San Joaquin communities this summer. Because farmland within Westlands Water District — ground zero in the current crisis — accounts for 20 percent of the $5 billion agricultural production of Fresno County (the nation’s No. 1 farm county), the potential economic impacts will dwarf the 2001 Klamath crisis.
As a result of an extremely dry spring, and implementation of court-ordered water delivery restrictions on Central Valley Project (CVP) operations to protect fish, pumping to San Joaquin farmers has been drastically curtailed this summer. For the producers in Westlands, this means they will have a scant 6 inches of water to quench the thirst of permanent crops like almonds over a three-month period.
Lawsuits launched by environmental activists have effectively throttled the ability to move water out into San Luis Reservoir, which typically supports western San Joaquin irrigation needs. Water users are scrambling to enhance supplies by looking at alternative groundwater sources, putting together water transfers and exchanges, and pleading with government agencies for regulatory relief. As prospects for implementing these alternatives diminish, local water users have developed a rationing proposal intended to avoid a catastrophic total depletion of stored water in San Luis.
This looming crisis is tragic and unfair. Like Klamath Project water users, these producers are some of the most innovative people I know. They have employed savvy and determination for many years, only to have their efforts denied by administrative, judicial and statutory restrictions beyond their control.
This time, it looks like they’ve run out of options.
Sad news to contemplate as I left John Keys’ moving memorial service in Boise, headed back for Klamath Falls.
About the author
Dan Keppen of Klamath Falls is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM Pacific
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