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Bureau's water bank taking shape

Published March 17, 2004


The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has started informing Klamath Reclamation Project irrigators who is in and who is out of its water bank this summer.

Contracts for land idling and ground water substitution, both inside and outside the Project are ready to be signed, said Dave Sabo, Project manager.

But those two types of accounts will only be a part of the water bank. The bank is required by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service as protection for threatened coho salmon downstream in the Klamath River. Sabo said he can also use stored water and possibly other options.

"I have a limited amount of money to spend on the water bank, so I have to make it go as far as it can," he said.

The water bank needs to have 75,000 acre-feet of water in it, and the Bureau has a $4.5 million budget to acquire it.

That amounts to about $60 per acre-foot, which is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of ground with 12 inches of water.

He said some of the contracts the Bureau will sign will be optional ones, with larger pumps that will only be kicked in if the water is needed. He said this year's bank should be more flexible than last year's because the Bureau can count flow extra river flows resulting from rain and snowstorms.

If extra water falls from the sky, then less water is needed from the ground.

The issue of whether high river flows could be counted as part of the water bank is a point of contention between the Bureau and the Fisheries Service. The two federal agencies still haven't agreed how much water was ultimately sent downstream as bank flows last year.

But the Fisheries Service said the flows can be part of the bank this year, Sabo said.

Groups on opposite sides of the Klamath water issue have similar sentiments about the water bank - saying it's a Band-Aid, not a long term solution.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said he appreciates the government's support of the program because it compensates farmers and ranchers for changing their water use, but it's not something that will remedies the Basin's problems permanently

"We reluctantly support the water bank," he said. "The water bank isn't going to be the silver bullet that solves the problem."

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the water bank is inherently unstable, especially if it gets underfunded by the federal government.

"It depends on a Congress that is harder and harder pressed to pay the bills," Spain said.

He said his group favors a permanent purchase of water rights, rather than the "renting" of water.

The storage in this year's bank would come from the Agency Lake Ranch, which the Bureau owns and can hold about 12,000 acre-feet of water and from national wildlife refuges like Lower Klamath Lake.

Although this year's bank will need to be about 50 percent larger than last year's pilot project, the Bureau has less money to spend this year. Last year about $4.75 million was spent.

In the pilot water bank last year, irrigators were paid fixed fees of $187.50 per acre idled, and $75 per acre-foot of groundwater.

This year, the Bureau didn't set prices and opened the water bank to bidding.

Sabo said the bids ranged from about $30 to about $150 per acre-foot.

The Bureau has about 400 applications, representing about 60,000 acres and about 140,000 acre-feet of water, from which to choose.

He said expanding the water bank to outside the Project helped get more applicants.

"It just makes more sense since the whole Basin impacts the river, not just the Project," he said.

Next summer, the Bureau will need a water bank of 100,000 acre-feet.


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