'Water bankí drags river basin deeper into debt
High Country News, October 17th Edition, by Rebecca
Followed by responses from:
Family Farm Alliance Executive Director
Crisp, Tulelake Growers Association Executive
posted to KBC 11/10/05
solution only worsens tension over scarce
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
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
supplies in the Klamath Basin. In the past five
years, the basin has
become a flash point in the regionwide struggle over
environmental, urban and agricultural interests (HCN,
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
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
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
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
"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
Writing new groundwater permits is "insanity," says
Bob Hunter of
WaterWatch of Oregon, when the basinís water is
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.
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
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
"I donít have any answers, but I know whatís wrong,"
"My neighbor made $60,000 from the government to
pump his well that
first year, and heís been pumping two years since. I
pumping water for farming, but when itís bought and
just shipped out
of here, it isnít right."
The author writes from Portland, Oregon.