Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
The Klamath Basin: The Tricky Business of
Water Rights in the West
Water War in the
Klamath Basin by Holly Doremus and A. Dan Tarlock
Comments by Dr. Kenneth A. Rykbost
Who am I?
I am a research
scientist who from 1987 to 2006 served at the Oregon State
University Klamath Experiment Station as Superintendent and
agronomist responsible for row crop research. I have a
bachelor's degree from Cornell University in Agricultural
Engineering, a master's degree from Cornell University in
Agronomy, and a doctorate degree from Oregon State University
with a major in soil science and a minor in civil engineering
with emphasis on water quality and hydrology. I have
participated in the water issues in the Klamath Basin throughout
my tenure in the area. I currently serve on the Board of
Directors and Science Committee for the Klamath Water Users
Association, and the Board of Directors for the Enterprise
Irrigation District which serves the suburbs of the eastern
portion of the bedroom community adjacent to the City of Klamath
Falls. I have completed a three year term of service on the
Klamath County Natural Resource Advisory Council. I participated
in both NAS-NRC Committees which reviewed the science behind the
Klamath water issues, including service as an invited reviewer
of the 2007 Draft Committee Report. I provided several documents
to the NRC Committees and have submitted reviews of numerous
reports, biological assessments, biological opinions, and
operations plans that have served as the basis for Klamath
Reclamation Project management since the early 1990s.
For over 15 years I have studied all of the significant reports and documents related to the science behind the Klamath water issues and provided review comments on many of them. Some of the most cited documents that have served as benchmarks for policy decisions are gray literature that has never been subjected to critical peer review. Two of the most grievous examples are a report on water quality in Upper Klamath Lake from studies by Kann and Walker (Nutrient and Hydrologic Loading to Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon, 1991-1998) submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation in draft form in 1999 and never revised, and the Balance Hydrologics Inc.1996 report; Initial Assessment of Pre- and Post-Klamath Project Hydrology and Impacts of the Project on Instream Flows and Fisheries Habitat by Kamman and Hecht. Kann and Walker has been cited hundreds of times, including more than 10 times in the 2007 Biological Assessment prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation as the baseline for 2008 Biological Opinions by the NOAA Fisheries and US Fish and Wildlife Service. Kamman and Hecht set the precedent for using Klamath River flows at Keno Oregon from 1905 through 1912 as the basis for natural conditions of the river prior to Klamath Reclamation Project. That precedent has been used by Hardy Phase I and by the Bureau of Reclamation in their Natural Flow Study as the best indication of historical river conditions pre-project, even though the period is one of the two wettest periods on record during the past 120 years in the upper basin, and it ignores major changes in the hydrology of the upper basin that resulted in increased flows in the Klamath River compared to actual historical conditions before any changes in natural conditions. Your treatment of the Klamath issues; in spite of the statement in your second paragraph that "Science has been a special focus of our work", completely ignores these and many other scientific facts that must be a part of any in depth analysis of the Klamath issues.
The tone of your treatise is easily discernable by reviewing the list of contributors and their organizations and some of the citations, including those bastions of scientific excellence Glen Spain and Michael Milstein. Discussions of sucker and salmon problems are focused solely on perceived affects of the irrigation project operations while virtually ignoring all other factors that -2- have contributed to declining populations. You frequently refer to production based on renewable resources as an "extraction" industry while failing to use that term in reference to the harvest of species for commercial, recreational, or tribal fisheries. In fact it is overharvest of suckers and salmon; including by predators, above all other factors, which has contributed to their population declines over several decades, a fact you conveniently ignore.
Finally, in the
Preface you point the finger at President George W. Bush and his
administration as the source of improper "dirty" interference
with the implementation of congressional mandates. You have
failed to point out that in fact the draft biological opinions
that led to the crisis in 2001 were released by the responsible
agencies on the last day of the Clinton administration; January
19, 2001. It was these BOs, formally implemented on April 6,
2001, that led to the NRC Committee's conclusion that lake
levels and flows imposed by those BOs were not scientifically
justified. This imposition was made by the same administrative
team that has tied up the only US source of low sulfur coal by
the establishment of the Grand Escalante Staircase National
Monument in Utah and thwarted any development of natural
resources toward solutions to the US energy dependence on
One of the documents you cite frequently for various points is the OSU/UC Davis report "Water Allocation in the Klamath Reclamation Project: 2001". This comprehensive compilation of information has many authors with a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and very divergent opinions on some of the important issues. Although there was some degree of review of each other's sections, there are many major differences of opinion of statements concerning various issues. On page 7 you cite Woodward and Rohm as the source for a statement that massive algae blooms on Upper Klamath Lake are largely a result of agricultural runoff. These authors have no expertise in the field of water quality or affects of agricultural activities on water quality. I find similar examples of misrepresentation of sources for strong statements - mostly pointing a finger at agriculture as the evil source of all problems in the watershed. Shame on you!
On the same page you state "oxygen levels in the upper Klamath River fell low enough to kill thousands of fish in 1986". It is a well known fact that oxygen levels in the stretch of the Klamath River between Link River and Keno fall to very low levels every summer from mid-June through September. Wood debris decomposition; a left over result from decades of log decking for use in a mill, is a leading cause of the biological oxygen demand that produces conditions unsuitable for fish. The other most important oxygen demand is from the biological decomposition of the blue green algae that migrate from Upper Klamath Lake into this reach of the Klamath River. These are important facts that a treatise on science would not ignore, especially when making such a strong statement about a fish die-off.
Several statements in your Culture Wars (page 9-11) segment warrant comment. Prior to development, the Klamath Basin area ultimately converted to the irrigation project was dominated by two shallow lakes and associated wetlands. At times Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake and their wetland margins occupied over 150,000 acres. These water bodies had "consumptive use", commonly referred to as evapotranspiration, which exceeded consumptive use of any of the crops currently grown on these lands. In the Klamath Basin, development of the irrigation project was not an expansion of irrigation to arid lands but the drainage of lakes and wetlands to develop very productive croplands. In fact the Klamath Project is often referred to as a drainage project rather than an irrigation project. In their "Natural Flow Study" the Bureau of Reclamation seemed puzzled by the fact that the conversion of wetlands to irrigated croplands was accompanied by an increase in flows out of the upper basin down the river. This is totally predictable because the average consumptive use of crops in the project is about 2 acre-feet per acre compared with evapotranspiration from wetlands and evaporation from open water bodies under local conditions is in excess of 3.0 acre-feet per acre.
The reference to long declines in salmon populations due to upstream dams and diversions fails to credit any of the other important factors leading to population declines. First and foremost was the great expansion of commercial fishing brought on with government subsidized financing of the commercial fleet. Loss of spawning beds to very extensive mining, overharvest by tribes of dwindling supplies, predation by a burgeoning population of seals and sea lions, sedimentation associated with logging and road building in major tributaries, affects of the 1964 flood, and disease are all widely recognized contributors to salmon declines. Yet nowhere do you credit any of these factors as important to the salmon problem. Why not?
Here and in other sections you downplay the value and sustainability of the agricultural industry in the Klamath Basin. Yes, the industry does have limitations imposed by distance to markets, lack of local processing facilities, and weather limitations including susceptibility to summer frosts and limited rainfall. However, the climatic conditions in the region have some very significant affects on crop quality for the crops we do grow. While sugarbeets were produced in the region, our crop had the highest sugar content of any production region in the US. Our mint oil has much superior quality which is taken advantage of by blending our oil with poorer quality oils from other regions. Our alfalfa hay is recognized as the highest of quality for the dairy industry. Grain quality as based on test weights is superior to grain produced in almost all other regions. All of the quality benefits are attributable to our moderate daily high temperatures and the cool nights and plentiful sunshine of the semi-arid region. As a result, local crops often command premium prices which offset somewhat lower yields than those obtained by crops in areas with longer growing seasons. Another benefit is a lack of important disease and pest problems that plague other production areas. For example, potatoes are not damaged by the Colorado potato beetle which costs growers up to $200/acre to control in other production areas. With the exception of two years, late blight control at costs up to $300/acre in many production areas is a non-issue in the Klamath Basin. Disease and pest problems are also less important in onion, cereal, and alfalfa crops.
Although our sugarbeet production never exceeded 12,000 acres, for several years the farm gate value of this crop exceeded the off-boat value of the salmon harvest for Oregon's entire fishery. Farm gate value of the crop production in the Klamath Project has exceeded the off-boat value of Oregon's commercial fishery for all species in most recent years. It is inappropriate to compare pasture or hay crops with so-called high value crops as you have done. Input costs must be included in the analysis and when thrown into the mix pastures may be more profitable than onions or potatoes. Over 50 percent of the farm gate in the basin as well as in the project has historically been from sale of livestock. Pastures are the base of that industry.
By far the highest value crop currently produced in the basin is strawberry plantlets. This crop, grown on about 3,500 acres, is the plantlet source for over one-half of the California berry crop. Gross value of the crop is about $30,000/acre. Thus this crop alone generates nearly a $100 M in farm gate value. In the past two years production of leafy vegetables has doubled to nearly 1,000 acres with a gross value similar to that of strawberry plantlets. Both of these crops have found a niche here because of freedom from important pests and diseases.
For these and
other reasons your treatment of the economics of agriculture in
the Klamath Basin and in the Klamath Irrigation Project is
totally inappropriate and inadequate. It is not however,
surprising as you have failed to consult with individuals in a
position to know the facts of the local industry.
I was hoping to finally read about science in this section. Sadly there was very little about science here and the only fact that was presented was the repeat of a myth that has been promulgated by many folks many times over. You state unequivocally that up to 90 percent of the Trinity River is diverted to the Sacramento. This statement has been made publicly by the head hydrologist in the Klamath Reclamation Project office more than once, was made twice in print in the IMST report on the Klamath Crisis of 2001, and is cited in many other venues. The fact is that in the past up to 90 percent of the North Fork of the Trinity River above the dam at Lewiston has been diverted to the Sacramento. In recent years the percentage has been significantly reduced. An analysis of the river flow data for all the years of record, including over 30 years before and after the dam was built, reveals that the average annual diversion during the high years was about 1 million acre-feet out of a total flow of about 6 million acre feet, or about 15 percent of the Trinity flow. There is no diversion of flows in the South Fork of the Trinity River. When the hydrographs of the river are com pared for the years before and after the dam was constructed they suggest that the timing affect on river flows was a significant reduction during April through June and little affect on flows during the remainder of the year. Since this is the period of out-migration of salmon smolt this is indeed an important factor for salmon success, but it may be offset by hatchery production and management.
You mention the
toxic algae problem that has been observed in two reservoirs on
the Klamath mainstem. You fail to mention that this same species
has occurred in several of the lakes in the Oregon Cascades at
elevations well above any agricultural activities. In fact this
week the local newspaper mentioned that this problem is
currently affecting water quality in three Oregon Cascade lakes
including Lemola Lake.
In Chapter 3 on page 50 two very large factual errors are stated. You identify the water diversion to the Reclamation Project at 1,345,000 acre-feet. That number is in fact the approximate annual discharge from the upper basin at Iron Gate Dam. The diversion to the Klamath Project is approximately 400,000 acre-feet, ranging from about 300,000 in high rainfall years to around 425,000 acre-feet in very dry years with little precipitation during the growing season. Although you later correct this error, you will have lost many readers before they get to the corrected figure. One of the problems with factual errors such as this is that they become accepted fact when repeated often enough. The myth about the Trinity River diversion is a prime example of this problem to the point that the lead hydrologist in the Reclamation Office has misstated that fact on a number of occasions.
A more serious error is made in the next paragraph. As previously pointed out, potato is not the highest value crop grown in the basin. Strawberry plantlets hold that distinction and have for several years. But your water consumption numbers are way out of line. Potato has a consumptive use of less than 2.0 acre-feet per acre. Applications above 2.0 acre feet are likely to lead to serious disease problems and rot breakdown in storages. The Bureau of Reclamation maintains a service for the western states identified as Agricultural Meteorology or AgriMet for short. This service is based on over 150 weather stations strategically located throughout the west to monitor weather parameters and predict irrigation requirements for a range of crops based on local conditions. There have been four of these stations situated in the Klamath Basin since 2001, including one established at the OSU Klamath Experiment Station in 2000. Our crop research at the station has confirmed the accuracy of this service in predicting irrigation requirements for the crops we grow in the region. Alfalfa has the highest consumptive use of the crops grown locally. It requires about 2.8 to 3.0 acre-feet per acre. In contrast, evaporation from an open body of water is slightly higher than 3.0 acre-feet per acre and evapotranspiration from emergent vegetation in a wetland consisting of Cattails and Tules can be considerably higher than from open water. Figures published by one of the members of the 2007 NRC Committee indicated this vegetation can exceed open water evaporation by up to 180 percent.
Even more puzzling is the statement that water use in the Klamath Project is inefficient by western standards. Several studies of project efficiency have been conducted over the years. A recent University of California - Davis study found just the opposite; the project is among the most efficient projects in water use. An efficiency of over 92 percent was reported. The high efficiency was attributed to the reuse of tail water at many points in the system. Over 600 miles of drain canals within the project pick up subsurface flows contained by impermeable confining soil layers and these return flows are reused over and over again. Solid data from years of records indicate the average consumptive use for the project is very close to 2.0 acre-feet per acre. Consumption above that amount is confined to the lakes and wetlands in the upper basin. This would include substantial evapotranspiration and evaporation from Klamath Lake, the Upper Klamath Marsh, the Sycan Marsh, Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoir.
This points to a second myth that is promoted extensively by the environmental community. That is that converting agricultural properties back to wetlands will enhance water supply. In fact the opposite is the case. Evaporation and evapotranspiration from open water and wetlands will always exceed crop consumptive use. Declining inflow to Upper Klamath Lake during the past 20 years is at least partly the result of large increases in the acreage in Klamath Marsh and Sycan Marsh wetlands. Recent conversions from agricultural use to wetland of properties adjacent to Upper Klamath Lake will further reduce water availability for irrigation and flows down river.
Further is this
discussion you talk about the marketing of potatoes. One of the
main factors in the decline of potato production in the basin
was the 2001 reduction in acreage resulting from curtailment of
water supplies. While those growers with contracts for chipping
potatoes were mostly able to find fields with well water and
were able to produce a crop - albeit at much greater expense for
land rent, very few acres were grown for fresh market, the main
market for local potatoes at that time. With a short crop
throughout the US and Canada in 2001, potato prices remained
high for fresh market crops throughout the marketing of the 2001
crop. Average prices for the year were about $8.00/cwt for fresh
market crops, nearly double production costs. Unfortunately
local growers had no crop to sell. Some were also out the cost
of seed and other expenses already invested when the water
cut-off was announced. Markets lost to other production areas as
a result have not been recaptured and several local fresh
packaging businesses were bankrupted. Today about 50 percent of
the potato production in the Klamath Basin is chipping potatoes
marketed through chip processors in California and Nevada.
Klamath Pearl represents less than 10 percent of the basin
potato production. As an aside, I conducted potato research in
New Brunswick, Canada for 11 years for the major potato
processing company which processes over 50 percent of the
production in New Brunswick and Maine. Yields in that region are
about 60 percent of the yields achieved in the Klamath Basin.
Their fresh market access in the eastern seaboard is about the
same distance for the production base in northern Maine as are
the San Francisco or Portland markets for local crops.
I could go on and
point out many more areas where this treatise misrepresents
important facts about the Klamath Basin and it's issues. A big
problem exists with the basis for requirements for high lake
elevations to protect suckers both in terms of water quality and
survival of adult
I hope, but I'm
not confident, that you will have taken the time to read my
comments. I doubt you will have an interest or take the time to
consider them in depth and reply in any way. I believe you, as
many others, do a disservice to the local community as well as
the scientific community by publishing one-sided material such
as this. It will no doubt serve as additional fodder in the
future by those wishing to obscure facts and promote an agenda.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM Pacific
Copyright © klamathbasincrisis.org, 2009, All Rights Reserved