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Times tight for 2004 Klamath water bank

By DYLAN DARLING Freelance Writer

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — One by one, farmers in the Klamath Basin are learning whether they are in or out of the 2004 water bank being put together by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. With money tight and a federal biological opinion demanding a larger water bank, the price per acre foot of water is going down.

The water bank needs to have 75,000 acre feet of water in it, and BuRec has a $4.5 million budget to acquire it. That’s about $60 an acre foot.

“I have a limited amount of money to spend on the water bank, so I have to make it go as far as it can,” said Dave Sabo, the Klamath Project’s area manager.

Last year BuRec spent $4.75 million to make a 50,000 acre foot water bank. That was paid at a rate of $187.50 an acre for land taken out of production, and $75 an acre foot for water pumped from wells.

This year, BuRec didn’t set prices. It opened the water bank to bidding, including properties beyond project boundaries.

Sabo said the bids range from about $30 to about $150 per acre foot.

There are about 400 applications, representing about 60,000 acres proposed for idling and a total of 140,000 acre feet of water supply.

The water bank is ordered by a NOAA Fisheries 2002 biological opinion designed to aid survival of coho salmon on the main Klamath River. The opinion gave BuRec several years to organize the water bank as a way to augment flows in dry years. Next year the target is 100,000 acre feet.

Sabo said this year, BuRec has more flexibility than in past years because it can count as part of the water bank unexpected stream flow from storm events. He said some contracts signed this spring are optional, involving larger pumps that will be turned on only if more water is needed during the season.

The issue of whether high river flows are counted is a point of contention between BuRec and NOAA. The two federal agencies still haven’t agreed how much water was ultimately sent downstream as water bank releases in 2003.

But NOAA said the unexpected flows can be part of the bank this year, Sabo said.

Groups on opposite sides of the Klamath water issue have similar sentiments about the water bank — saying it’s a Band-Aid, not a long- term solution.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said he appreciates the government’s support of the program because it compensates farmers and ranchers for changing their water use, but it’s not something that permanently fixes problems.

“We reluctantly support the water bank,” he said. “The water bank isn’t going to be the silver bullet that solves the problem.”

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations said the water bank is inherently unstable, especially if it is underfunded by the federal government.

“It depends on a Congress that is harder and harder pressed to pay the bills,” Spain said.

He said his group favors a permanent purchase of water rights, rather than the “renting” of water.

In addition to purchase of water, BuRec hopes to fill about 12,000 acre feet through spring runoff captured and stored at Agency Lake Ranch on the upper lake, and at national wildlife refuges above and within the project.

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