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Water worries - Irrigators seek solutions to tough water year

by Lacey Jarrell 1/10/16 Herald and News

< Klamath Irrigation District Manager Mark Stuntebeck outlines challenges irrigators may face in getting future water deliveries. Board members from 18 irrigation entities attended the meeting in Merrill Friday. H&N photo by Lacey Jarrell

MERRILL — Drought. Water shortages. Litigation.

Those are just three of the issues plaguing Klamath Project irrigators and their pocketbooks, according to Klamath Irrigation District Manager Mark Stuntebeck.

At a Friday meeting in Merrill that brought together representatives from 18 Klamath Project irrigation entities, Stuntebeck moderated a discussion in which nearly 50 Project irrigators floated ideas for creating more water certainty and bringing unity to the agricultural community.

“Our ideas aren’t going to work if we don’t, so we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We’ve got an awful lot of wood to chop and a damn short time to get it done in,” said farmer Brent Cheyne.

According to Stuntebeck, many of the longstanding water-related issues facing the Project are compounded by the loss of a settlement package that could have stabilized water deliveries for the next 50 years. The pact — known as the Klamath Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act — dissolved on Dec. 31, and with it went much of the hard-won hope for harmony in the Klamath Basin.

A stipulated agreement within the pact’s text stated that the Klamath Tribes agreed not call on their full adjudicated water right for Upper Klamath Lake while the pact was being deliberated in federal legislative branches.

If the bill had passed and become law, Klamath Project irrigators were slated to receive a substantial block of irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake each year, if certain instream flows required by the Klamath Tribes were met in the lake’s tributaries.

Stuntebeck said historic data from Upper Klamath Lake shows that average lake levels have regularly been below the levels required to fulfill the Tribes’ water right, meaning irrigators' fields may remain dry for much of the growing season.

“Right now, dealing with reality, you have no set water supplies,” Stuntebeck told the group. “It’s determined by Mother Nature and biological opinions and we get what’s left over. The future could be pretty bleak.”

Klamath Water Users costs, concerns

Few irrigators at the meeting had concrete suggestions for solving the Project’s water woes, but several circled back to relying on leadership from the Klamath Water Users Association.

According to the Water Users’ website, the organization has represented Klamath Project farmers since 1953, and has lobbied for the Klamath ag sector in several arenas, including water quality and quantity, government relations and power costs. Water Users activities are guided by a board of directors made up of representatives from dues-paying districts.

Only 12 of the 18 entities that make up the Klamath Project belong to the organization.

“Not everybody in this room is together on that,” Stuntebeck said. “Everybody’s got their own agendas, but generally you’re all the same — you’re all farmers and ranchers. You all want to irrigate; you all have that in common.”

“Why does it cost so damn much?” asked Ken Schell of Pine Grove Irrigation District. Irrigators who participate in the organization must pay about $5 per irrigated acre to receive representation by the association.

Don Russell, manager of Horsefly Irrigation District, said his district has a budget of about $300,000.

“We’re asked to cough up $55,000 of that for dues to Water Users. It’s hard to justify that to your patrons,” Russell said. “Can we reduce the cost? Can we reduce the bleeding, and can the little guy at the table have a vote without having to pay through the nose for it?”

According to farmer Gary Derry, if more districts sign onto Water Users the fee could be reduced.

“If we were all in it, it’s probably $3 per acre,” said Bill Heiney.

Curt Mullis, of Pioneer District Improvement Company, said the idea of his district trying to single-handedly influence legislation for its 425 acres is unrealistic.

“Our money is well spent with the Water Users,” Mullis said.

Tracey Liskey said he believes Water Users is a good organization, but it needs to represent all the districts equally.

“We make sure that all our side groups feel that we’re in this equally, and then I think you have a pretty unified group going forward,” he said.

Dave Cacka suggested opening up Water Users to the Klamath Tribes and upper Basin water users.

“Let’s get all the parties involved,” Cacka said. “We need to sit down and let bygones be bygones and bury the hatchet. This isn’t the time for pettiness, vindictiveness or finger pointing. It’s a time to work together.”

Proposals on the table

Warren Haught, former president of the Klamath Basin Improvement District, suggested excess water in Upper Klamath Lake be stored in the Project’s canal system for carry over between irrigation seasons.

Oregon Water Resources Department Watermaster Scott White said that could be a possibility depending on time of year and what the classified water use is.

Tricia Hill suggested that irrigators focus their time at the meeting discussing whether they want to re-enter a settlement process and how that could be set up.

No response was given to Hill’s suggestion.

Brent Cheyne said he would like to force the National Marine Fisheries Services to pay the Klamath Project for every acre-foot of water diverted downstream into the Klamath River. He said in the final order of adjudication, an acre-foot of water was valued at $600.

Cheyne said he believes the Project should work to gain ownership of all Klamath Project facilities, including the Link River Dam. The Klamath Project’s water delivery structures are owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Link River Dam is owned by PacifiCorp.

“I think we need to push potentially to get the Bureau of Reclamation out of the Klamath Basin and take ownership of the Project,” Cheyne said.

Cheyne said he also supports forming a public utility district.

“We need to work with the Klamath Tribes tirelessly to jointly acquire a hydroelectric facility and form a public utility district and get a beneficial power rate for the entire community.”

Dwindling resources

Another blow to Project irrigators dealing with drought and water shortages is the dissolution of the Water User Mitigation Program, which paid irrigators in return for not using surface water to grow crops.

“If there are shortages, there won’t be any compensation. Who knows if that will ever happen again,” Stuntebeck said.

In addition, groundwater, which has been largely depended on to supplement surface water shortages, has been declining and could face future regulation, Stuntebeck said.

Stuntebeck said one of the Project’s biggest problems over the years has been ignorance of the issues and facts.

“Ignorance doesn’t mean stupid, it means you don’t know,” Stuntebeck said. “We have to do a better job of informing farmers. You’re going to need to find money somewhere than out of your pockets because at some point all this stuff we’re talking about is coming down the 'pike, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money.”

Cacka said the bottom line is that nobody is going to look out for interests of the Klamath Project interests but the irrigators.

“We are going to forge our own path. It’s much better for us to be unified,” Cacka said.


Endangered Species Act

Some Klamath Project irrigators believe water requirements to conserve the endangered fish in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River are at odds with the Basin’s agricultural needs.

In 2013, a joint biological opinion governing water levels in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River was released by National Marine Fisheries Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect threatened coho salmon and endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers in the Klamath watershed. The opinion requires that Upper Klamath Lake remain at certain levels specific to the time of year and that Klamath River receive extra flows when too boost coho runs.

At the meeting, board members proposed trying to get a seat at the table with federal resource managers who develop the Basin’s joint biological opinion and craft regulations for protecting threatened and endangered species.

Bureau of Reclamation Area Manager Therese O’Rourke Bradford said a special designation called “applicant status” may get irrigators closer to the process, but each federal agency allows access to the process at its own discretion.

Generally, she said, “there’s no public comment.”


Oregon Water Resources Department adjudication regulation provides surface water rights based on priority date of property claims. It was first implemented in the Klamath Basin in 2013. The older the claim date, the more senior the water right — junior water users could have irrigation supply shut off if a senior water right makes a claim to that water.


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