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'Water bankí drags river basin deeper into debt

High Country News, October 17th Edition, by Rebecca Clarren
Followed by responses from: Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance Executive Director
and Deb Crisp, Tulelake Growers Association Executive Director
posted to KBC 11/10/05
Win-winí water solution only worsens tension over scarce resource

From her house near Klamath Falls, Ore., Kelly Holcomb loves to look
out her kitchen window at the juniper-dotted mountains nearby and the
vast green fields of the Klamath Valley. But she doesnít like what she
sees to the west, from which a neighboring farmer installed a large well
a few years back. The well taps into the same aquifer where Holcombís
family gets its drinking water.
Rancher Gary Wright, a participant in the Klamath water bank program, is paid by the government to pump groundwater on his ranch several miles south of the Oregon state line. Ross William Hamilton, The Oregonian
Rancher Gary Wright, a participant in the Klamath water bank program,
is paid by the government to pump groundwater on his ranch several miles
south of the Oregon state line. Ross William Hamilton, The Oregonian

Not long after the farmer started pumping 24 hours a day, seven days a
week, Holcomb turned on the kitchen faucet; a tiny trickle dribbled out,
then nothing. Her well, dug in the 1930s, was suddenly dry. Holcomb and
her husband had to spend over $10,000 to deepen it.

"Listen, lots of our friends are farmers. We have horses; we buy hay,"
says Holcomb, who owns a Western clothing and jewelry store. "I want the
ag community to stay in business, but I donít believe it should be to
the detriment of everyone around them."

What upsets Holcomb most is that her neighbor isnít even using the
water; heís selling it to the federal government in a program that,
ironically, was supposed to end the tug-of-war over limited water
supplies in the Klamath Basin. In the past five years, the basin has
become a flash point in the regionwide struggle over water between
environmental, urban and agricultural interests (HCN, 12/8/03: News
flash: Fish do need water).

In 2002, NOAA Fisheries started the "water bank" program to free up
water to help threatened coho salmon. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
manages the project, which is funded for 10 years. It pays farmers to
stop irrigating altogether, or to use only well water on their fields
ó or, as in the case of Holcombís neighbor, to pump their well
water into irrigation canals, so the Bureau can leave more water in the

The water bank was supposed to keep everyone happy. But four years and
$20 million later, a solution to the basinís water problems is as
elusive as ever ó and the water bank may only be making things worse.

"Ten years of the water bank isnít going to solve the problems down
here," says Jim Bryant, who was the Bureau of Reclamationís Klamath
director from 1991 to 2003. "Itís a pipe dream."

Robbing Peter to pay Paul
The program appears to be sending more water downstream to help fish.
However, the actual results are hard to quantify because the Bureau
doesnít monitor the water diversions of the 1,200 farmers in the
Klamath Project, according to a report issued earlier this year by the
Government Accountability Office.

In July, low water levels and high temperatures diminished the oxygen
in the river water, killing several thousand endangered sucker fish just
south of Klamath Falls. Roger Smith, a fisheries biologist with the
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the water bank isnít
helping the ecosystem long-term.

By encouraging groundwater pumping, the water bank has also led to
conflicts between farmers and numerous homeowners like Kelly Holcomb,
who have seen their well water dwindle. The Klamath Valley and Tule Lake
areas have seen an eightfold increase in groundwater pumping since 2000,
according to a May 2005 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. In
California, an irrigation district along the border owns at least 10 new
wells that, on average, pump 8,200 gallons per minute.

In fact, the Bureau may be robbing Peter to pay Paul, because the wells
most likely draw water away from the springs that feed the regionís
rivers and lakes. And preliminary findings indicate that the current
rate of pumping is not sustainable. In the past five years, the aquifer
has sustained a net loss of 13 feet; in summer months, itís dropped by
up to 40 feet in some places.

"Weíve never seen declines like that, not on that scale," says Ned
Gates, a hydrogeologist with the Oregon Water Resources Department.
"Part of it is itís been a drought, but if this pumping wasnít going
on, I think youíd see a lot of recovery."

This summer, a coalition of environmental groups asked the state to
place a moratorium on all new water rights, including well pumping
permits, until the U.S. Geological Survey finishes two long-term studies
to determine how much water the aquifer holds and the effect of
groundwater pumping on rivers and lakes. In August, the state denied
that request.

Pork-barrel pumpers
Writing new groundwater permits is "insanity," says Bob Hunter of
WaterWatch of Oregon, when the basinís water is already over-allocated
among farmers, homeowners, wildlife refuges and imperiled fish. The
state hasnít even determined how much water is due to the Klamath
Tribe, which owns the basinís most senior water rights, he adds.

Even some farmers call the water bank shortsighted. Third-generation
Klamath Falls farmer Bobby Flowers, a former Farm Bureau president, says
the only farmers who support it are those who are selling water to the

The Bureau acknowledges that the water bank is too expensive to
maintain forever, but agency staffers are short on details for other
alternatives. Talk of long-term solutions, such as buying out farmers,
has hit roadblocks within the Bush administration, which argues that
farm buyouts ruin rural communities.

For landowners like Holcomb, the situation is simply not acceptable.

"I donít have any answers, but I know whatís wrong," says Holcomb.
"My neighbor made $60,000 from the government to pump his well that
first year, and heís been pumping two years since. I donít mind
pumping water for farming, but when itís bought and just shipped out
of here, it isnít right."

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.





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