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Report faults costs of Klamath water bank

The program in place since 2001 sometimes has paid for water that hasn't gone into rivers, the GAO says
Thursday, March 31, 2005

A federal program that pays Klamath Basin farmers not to farm has freed up water for fish, but the government has sometimes paid for more water than it received, a new review concludes.

The Klamath water bank program also has proved expensive, so far costing more than $12 million, and it could run up a $65 million tab by 2011, according to a report Wednesday from the Government Accountability Office.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation created the water bank after a record drought in 2001 and federal fish protections left farmers in the federal Klamath Project without irrigation water for much of the summer. It pays willing farmers to idle their land, letting the water they otherwise would use stay in the Klamath River.

But a lack of gauges within the Klamath Project, a 200,000-acre reclamation project that is home to about 1,400 farms, made it difficult to tell how much extra water remained in the river. The government then paid more farmers to irrigate with well water instead of water diverted from the river, but that began draining the water table.

Independent evaluations found that idling the land saved less water than the government paid for, the GAO said. The government this year sought competitive bids from farmers willing to idle land in hopes of getting a better price.

The GAO also found that the Bureau of Reclamation did not explain the workings of the water bank, causing confusion among Native American tribes and others concerned about water supplies for fish.

The Democratic congressmen who sought the report said it shows demand outstrips supply of Klamath water.

"The Klamath's upper basin is oversubscribed, and the water bank is a costly program that doesn't solve the Klamath Basin's long-term water needs," said Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents Northern California. "The water bank process has been secretive, and stakeholders have been kept in the dark."

California tribes contend fish have suffered from water diversions to farms, but farmers say they are not to blame.

Reclamation officials say they are working to improve communications about the water bank and said they hope broader efforts to resolve water shortages will end the need for the program.

The GAO report said the cost of retiring enough land with farm buyouts to save the same amount of water as the water bank could run between $15 million and $130 million.

Conservation groups said that would be more cost-effective than paying farmers each year not to irrigate. But farmers fear it could erode the local agricultural community.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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