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Road map to a train wreck
by Kehn Gibson, Tri-County Courier posted July 6, 2003

 

If Klamath Basin farmers pray for rain ó a traditional picture ó the new moisture could act to shut the entire Klamath Project down.

That was the message Monday as irrigators and Bureau of Reclamation officials met to develop strategies to meet target levels in Upper Klamath Lake as defined by the Bureauís 10-year operations plan.

The levels, measured in feet above sea level, are set when the Klamath Falls office of the Bureau determines water year type. That determination is based on projected inflows into the lake.

Initially, the Bureau labeled 2003 a "dry" year, requiring the level of Upper Klamath Lake to be no lower than 4,141.5 at midnight on June 30. However, heavy mountain snows and about 3 inches of rain in the Klamath Falls area in April and May increased the inflows into the lake, and on June 13 the Bureau upgraded the water year to "below average."

That increased the required lake level on June 30 to 4,142.1, meaning about 40,000 acre-feet of water must remain in the lake. It also increased the amount of water the Bureau had to release downstream to aid migrating salmon.

Seven days later, the Bureau realized they had a problem.

Inflows from the April snows had dropped drastically. Bureau projections showed the lake would end June an inch below the required level.

On June 20, Bureau officials asked irrigators to reduce water deliveries by 400 acre-feet per day. By June 24, irrigators had reduced their deliveries by nearly 1,600 acre-feet per day, and the Tulelake Irrigation District began pumping wells drilled in 2001.

Although irrigators had idled nearly 17,000 acres of cropland and had voluntarily reduced water deliveries, on June 25 the Bureau told irrigators the Project would have to shut down until July 1 to meet the required lake level.

The decision was amended by that afternoon, after calls to White House officials ó who were unaware of the plan to shut down the Project ó led to a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing Dave Sabo, the Bureauís Klamath Project manager, to go below the lake level set for June.

The letter applies only to the June level, and hydrologists said Monday the July level will be reached by July 11.

"We are moving into the base flow period," said Paul Cleary, head of the Oregon Water Resources Department and a participant in Mondayís meeting. "All the tributaries are down to their August lows."

Cleary said the Williamson River, one of the three main tributaries that feed Upper Klamath Lake, had dropped from 1,150 cubic feet per second to 504 cubic feet per second.

The apparent inflexibility of the plan frustrated irrigators.

"Irrigators have conserved water and we are being faced with a shut off because of it," said Gary Wright, a Tulelake rancher.

Sabo said he cannot readjust the water year type until a new projection of inflows is completed.

"Those criteria are set," Sabo said. "All I can do now is follow those parameters."

Cecil Lesley, a Bureau operations manager, told irrigators work is underway on developing a new inflow projection for July, but cautioned it would probably not be completed by July 11. Lesley also said a "significant rain event" would not help.

"If it rains hard in the middle of July, we would probably have to shut the Project down for the rest of the season," Lesley said. "We are in a situation where we have to go month by month."

The Bureauís Bob Davis said the current situation in the Klamath Basin was not foreseen by planners.

"It wasnít part of the thinking then, and it probably should have been," Davis said. "Iím not saying we get it either, Iím just saying we will work into it."

Dan Keppen, the executive director for the Klamath Water Users, disputes Davisí claim.

"We brought the dangers of stair-stepped lake levels to their attention eight months ago at least," Keppen said. "We have a screwed up paradigm to manage the Project with."

 

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