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Feds buying more water for Klamath salmon


By JEFF BARNARD  / Associated Press

Federal irrigation authorities are looking outside the Klamath Reclamation Project for farms and ranches willing to sell water to build up a water bank devoted to threatened salmon in the Klamath River.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Klamath Falls is sending 300 applications to people interested in bidding on contracts to provide a total of 75,000 acre feet of water, through wells or foregoing irrigation, said Gary Baker, special projects officer for the bureau in Klamath Falls.

The bureau is expanding the program it began last year to produce an extra 100,000 acre feet of water for threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River, as set by federal scientists under the Endangered Species Act. Most of the water will go to increasing springtime flows, when young salmon migrate to the ocean, said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken.

The water this year represents 25,000 acre feet more than the 50,000 acre feet the bureau bought for $4 million last year within the borders of the Klamath Reclamation Project, the 250,000-acre federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border that has been at the center of water wars in the Klamath Basin.

The water bank is among the measures taken to prevent a repeat of 2001, when the government shut off water to Klamath Project farmers to meet Endangered Species Act demands for water for threatened coho and endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.

To get the extra water, the bureau is soliciting bids from outside the Klamath Project and expects to pay a total of $7 million, Baker said Friday. The bureau must forego work on developing new water sources for the basin to come up with the extra money.

Eventually, the bureau must come up with an extra 100,000 acre feet of water for salmon.

Neither environmentalists, farmers, nor salmon fishermen are happy with the water bank as a long-term solution to the difficulties of balancing scarce water between farms and fish in the Klamath Basin.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California salmon fishermen, said there was no way to be sure the water bank provided extra water for fish.

He agreed with Steve Pedery of Waterwatch that the money would be better spent buying out farms inside the project to permanently reduce water demand in the basin.

Farmers would rather work than idle their fields, said Bob Gasser, a fertilizer dealer who serves on the board of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents Klamath Project farmers.

Gasser added he was disappointed that the water bank was drawing on money that otherwise could be used to develop new water sources.

Klamath Water Users executive director Dan Keppen said one good thing about the new water bank was that going outside the Klamath Project for water would spread the impacts from idling farmland.

Interest in the program was strong last year, with more than 300 farms offering to forego irrigation on 24,000 acres, twice what the bureau was looking for. The rest of the water bank came from well water.

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