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Water bank figures start to roll in

March 8, 2006 by HOLLY OWENS, H&N Staff Writer

About 71,000 acre-feet of water so far has been dedicated to the this year's water bank, which utilizes water not used for irrigation to benefit endangered and threatened fish in the Klamath River Basin.

The final configuration of the water bank, which will include 100,000 acre feet, will be determined around April 1, according to Rae Olsen, spokeswoman with the Klamath Basin Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Pilot Water Bank program is a way of accounting for water that will not be used for irrigation this year. As part of the program, the Bureau of Reclamation contracts with ranchers and farmers to use water that otherwise would be used for pastures and crops. That water is used to benefit threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River and endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.

The water bank is required by a 2002 National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration-Fisheries Biological Opinion on Klamath Reclamation Project operations.

The cost for the program this year, thanks to favorable precipitation, is estimated to drop to around $4 million, down from last year's cost of $7.4 million.

Water comes from several sources, including on- and off-Project storage, dry-land operations and groundwater substitution. There are 207,000 acres of irrigable land in the Klamath Project, and on average 400,000 acre feet of water is delivered to project irrigators each irrigation season. To be eligible, acreage submitted for the water bank must be in units of at least 20 contiguous acres and irrigated in 2003, 2004, or 2005, either with surface or ground water. An acre foot of water is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of ground with 12 inches of water.

In February, the Bureau received 193 applications.

About 25,000 acre-feet of water will be stored between the Agency Lake Ranch, which the bureau owns, and the adjacent Barnes Ranch. About 15,000 acre feet of water will be banked from national wildlife refuges like Lower Klamath Lake. Bids from dry-land operation growers, both on and off the Project, will save about 10,000 acre feet. The Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust, in the Wood River Valley area, banked about 11,500 acre feet. About 10,000 acre feet are banked up from a new option this year - groundwater substitution.

Applicants taking the ground water substitution option will alternate between surface water irrigation and groundwater irrigation at the bureau's direction during the irrigation season. Since the water bank is a pilot program, change happens from year to year as the program is adjusted.

"We do make changes every year to increase the efficiency in terms of water and money, as well as in terms of effectiveness," Olsen said.

Increasing reliance on ground water during recent dry years has been drawing down the water table. This was addressed in a report from the U.S. Geological Survey released in May. The report found that private wells used for the water bank increased demand eightfold on the local ground water. Wells dropped between 2 and 20 feet.

Adjustments in the water bank are taking that report into account.

"Our goal is to minimize groundwater use in wet years, and an example is this year's ground water contract which will allow us to purchase water only if and when we actually need it to meet flow requirements," Olsen said.

The water year type is projected to be above average so far this year, benefiting from regular precipitation and cool temperatures. The irrigation season begins in early April.

Bids are in

The following bids were submitted in February for the 2006 Pilot Water Bank through the Bureau of Reclamation.

  • 163 dry land operation bids were submitted. The bureau expects to purchase 54 contracts that will average at $62 an acre foot.
  • 27 ground water bids were submitted and the bureau expects to purchase 20 contracts that will average at $56 an acre foot.

    Final selection for bids is subject to irrigation district approval and further analysis of applications
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