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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
Generally, she said, “there’s no public
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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