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Project irrigators unlikely to be able to start over on water pact; off-Project irrigators in for changes with or without it


   The release of the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement has generated much controversy.
   I share many of the concerns about the proposal which have been well articulated in public hearings and the media.
   One aspect of history leading up to todayís proposal has not received adequate attention in my view. It relates to the status quo that ensues if no agreement is reached or implemented. It has played out over the past 15 years because of two related facts: the federal nexus tie of the Reclamation Project to the Endangered Species Act, and the lack of adjudicated water rights in the upper basin. As a result, the Klamath Reclamation Project has borne the burden of regulatory demands imposed for listed fish in upper and lower reaches of the watershed. In 1991, 1992 and 1994 droughts, some curtailment of irrigation was experienced in the Project. In 2001, the Project was shut down at great cost to most Project irrigators.
   On June 25, 2003, Project irrigation district managers were informed in the morning that the Project would be shut down at 3 p.m. as Bureau of Reclamation officials deemed that continued operation would violate a June 30 Klamath Lake minimum elevation target by 1 to 2 inches. Ultimately, common sense prevailed and the shutdown was avoided. Project irrigators assisted in the solution by significantly reducing irrigation.

Another close call three years later    

In 2006, a combination of high flows at Iron Gate Dam, required by the biological opinion for June (180,000 acre feet), and to a far lesser extent, lake depletion by the breaching of the Caledonia dike and flooding 2,000 acres with approximately 20,000 acre feet, resulted in violation of lake level targets by up to 1.5 feet by late season. In midsummer the Project faced jeopardy by the filing of a 60-day notice-of-intent to sue. Project irrigators reduced water use to avoid another shutdown.

   In 2007, Reclamation officials assured district managers in February and March that irrigation supplies were adequate. At the same time, they warned that unlike in 2006, no violation of lake level targets would be tolerated.
   Final estimates of lake inflows which determine requirements for lake level minimums and flows at Iron Gate Dam were about 1,000 acre feet below a trigger that would have greatly increased flow and lake level targets, thus reducing supplies available to Project irrigators. Even with that result, the month-end lake level targets were in jeopardy throughout the irrigation season, and once again the Project was at dire risk of a shutdown.
   Recently, additional agricultural lands have been reconnected to the lake by breaching dikes. Additional breaching in 2009 is planned that will reconnect 10,000 acres of Agency Lake and Barnes Ranch properties to the lake and add them to the wildlife refuge. While these actions are being promoted as beneficial by increasing lake storage, they will result in evaporation losses exceeding consumption by crops and pastures under agricultural management of these properties and no increase in net available stored water will be realized in my opinion.
   A re-consultation process under way will lead to a new set of biological opinions to oversee project operations for 2008 to 2018. The Bureau of Reclamation initiated the process by providing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries a single biological assessment to be used as the basis for developing biological opinions.

Results donít live up to promises    

In spite of assurances during the past two years that the process would lead to more flexibility in lake level and flow requirements, in my opinion the product does not meet these promises. The biological assessment calls for higher river flows in late summer than even those called for in the controversial Hardy Phase II final report. Lower flows recommended for spring months are moot because the lake is in a spill mode at that time in most years and higher flows will be unavoidable.

   With this history and prospects for more of the same or worse, is it any wonder that the majority of on-Project irrigators will probably support the proposed settlement agreement? While off-Project and other Basin irrigators supported Project irrigators during the 2001 disaster, they have not borne the burden of the Endangered Species Act requirements or the constant threat of pending doom.
   I dislike many aspects of the proposed agreement and understand concerns that have been expressed. I would like to see improvements that satisfy everyone.
   In my opinion, throwing this proposal out and starting over again is not an economically viable option for Project irrigators. For off-Project irrigators who have not faced the same types of problems to date, there is less history to judge what may be the best alternative, but there are undoubtedly changes ahead with or without a settlement.

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              Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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