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Rangeland Trust aims at improving Basin's water quality, quantity

Published April 5, 2004

By Chrysten Lambert, executive director of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust, 340 A Street, Suite 201, Ashland. She is the daughter of James Root, KBRT co-owner, and hydrologist for KBRT's Seattle consulting company.

Guest columnist

Finding innovative ways to reduce water demand, improve water quality and restore fish habitat is essential for solving the problems that face the Klamath Basin.

The Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust believes that any proposed solution will be most effective if it is voluntary. That is why the Rangeland Trust has worked for the last few years to provide assistance to landowners interested in reducing their demand for water and improving water and habitat quality on their properties.

These voluntary reductions in water use and other im-provements to the streams result in additional water to meet the needs of other farmers and ranchers, which, in turn, benefits the entire community.

During the 2002 and 2003 irrigation seasons, the Rangeland Trust and the Bureau of Reclamation developed irrigation forbearance programs to voluntarily reduce consumptive use of water in some areas above Upper Klamath Lake and to provide improved water quality and aquatic habitat in these streams and the Lake.

At that time, no measurements of consumptive use had been made in the area, so scientists from Oregon State University (including Dr. Richard Cuenca) and the Bureau of Reclamation were asked to estimate the water savings based on available information. Contrary to some recent reports, the Rangeland Trust did not provide any of the water savings estimates used in last year's contracts, but instead relied on Cuenca's recommendations.

Accuracy vital

It was important to the Rangeland Trust that the accuracy of the water savings estimates be improved by the collection of actual monitoring data in the Wood River Valley.

Accurately quantifying the amount of water available for sale is a key element of forming a water market because it is important that all water sales are based on "wet" water, rather than "paper" water.

In order to achieve this, the Rangeland Trust contracted with Hydrologic Engineering Inc., a consulting company owned and operated by Dr. Richard Cuenca and Dr. Larry Mahrt who are both well respected professors from Oregon State University. Cuenca and Mahrt installed extensive monitoring equipment in the Wood River Valley to evaluate and monitor consumptive use under various land use conditions.

The first year of monitoring suggested that the water savings through irrigation forbearance is on average 12.4 acre-inches per acre in the Wood River Valley. The savings is the reduction in evaporation and plant use. This falls right in the middle of the range of estimates recently provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (10.8 to 15.6 inches).

It is important to note, however, that this estimate of 12.4 inches is based only on the data collected during 2003, and therefore should be considered a very preliminary estimate. Precise analysis of the water savings will require several years of data collection in order to account for climatic variation and other changes. The Rangeland Trust is committed to continuing to collect monitoring data in future years to improve these estimates as much as possible. The monitoring work conducted by Cuenca and Mahrt is being peer-re-viewed to provide the most reliable data set possible.

The fact that the 2003 monitoring data indicate slightly less water savings than initial estimates only illustrates the importance of monitoring all water savings projects, rather than relying on remote studies as is often done in the Basin. We believe that the data collected by Rangeland Trust currently provide the most detailed analysis of water savings from the Bureau of Reclamation water-banking programs, and we recommend that similar studies be conducted throughout the Basin so that the actual water savings from all projects can be accurately assessed. This will be an essential step to finding solutions in the Basin, and providing secure sources of water for agriculture well into the future.

The Bureau of Reclamation will be paying landowners based on these improved estimates of water savings during 2004 at a rate of $60 per acre-foot, which is equivalent to $62 per acre of irrigated land. Participating landowners may also choose to enroll their properties in existing restoration and conservation programs in the Basin to help achieve additional benefits to water quality, fish and wildlife habitat. These other programs are open to all landowners in the Basin, and enrollment in the programs is competitive. As a result, only those projects that provide the greatest benefit to the community are selected for funding.

The Rangeland Trust program is not only designed to provide additional water to the system, but also to improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat, equally important goals for solving challenges in the basin.

Water left in streams

In order to provide the consumptive use water savings described above, the participants of the Rangeland Trust program do not utilize any of their irrigation water rights. This means that the full yearly water duties, or allowance, of 3 to 5 acre-feet per acre are left instream. This provides cold, clear, clean water to Agency Lake and will help to improve conditions within the lake. Rangeland Trust contracts with consultants to evaluate our success in achieving these goals in order to maximize the benefits of our program for the community.

The problems that currently face the Basin can best be solved through innovative, voluntary programs, particularly when the effectiveness of these programs is monitored and made available for public discussion as Rangeland Trust has done.

We have hosted many tours of our projects and met with a variety of community groups in order to ensure that all of the restoration efforts of Rangeland Trust are open to the public. Rangeland Trust hopes that other organizations and members of the community will develop their own programs and ideas for solving the Basin's problems and seek to unite rather than to divide the community.

The author...

Chrysten Lambert is executive director of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust, 340 A Street, Suite 201, Ashland.


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