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Upper Basin water shutoffs likely

Low water flows a troubling sign as state directors visit Klamath

  by DEVAN SCHWARTZ, Herald and News 5/7/13

     Praying for rain apparently hasn’t worked since the Klamath County   Commissioners’ April 16 declaration of drought conditions. And uncertainty about water availability is met with the solidifying picture of a water year well below average in the Klamath Basin.  

   “We’re in a pretty challenging situation with water management,” said Richard Whitman, natural resources policy director for Gov. John Kitzhaber. Whitman characterized this year as   among the two or three driest years on record.

   Whitman was part of a team from the governor’s office that visited Klamath County Monday to discuss the     drought situation with groups including the county commissioners, law enforcement and the Klamath Tribes.

   Given an irrigation season stalled out in anticipation of a joint biological opinion mandating how the Bureau of Reclamation will operate the Klamath Project, the governor’s team was especially troubled by low instream flows to Upper Klamath Lake.

   While Upper Klamath Lake is at 90 percent capacity, water flowing into it has fallen dramatically, the team said. The Sprague River is flowing at 34 percent of average; the Williamson River at 44 percent; and the Klamath River itself below Iron Gate Dam under 50 percent of average.

   Less available water would increase the chances of conflicts related to water adjudication, whose final order of determination was released in March. The Klamath River Basin Adjudication stipulates which water users get how much water, when and for what beneficial use.

   With demand greater than available water, Whitman, Oregon’s natural resources policy director, predicted a water shutoff for certain users because their rights are behind others.

   “The state has the legal requirement to regulate and there is a real risk of an Upper Basin water shutoff,” said Whitman. One of the reasons the group met with law enforcement was to brief them on possible conflicts between irrigators and the watermaster when the time came to shut off water.  

   Whitman added that adjudication is the tool used to deal with droughts and shortages throughout the Western United States. It is now in effect for the first time in the Basin as it is in other regions of Oregon.

   Flexibility to water management

   Phil Ward, director of Oregon’s Water Resources Department, said a   drought actually allows more flexibility in terms of water use.

   For example, drought wells built since the Basin’s 2001 water shutoff, can be used only in declared drought times.

   Ward said the hope is that irrigators will not pump more than 40,000 or 50,000 acrefeet from groundwater aquifers, though they have used up to 100,000 in the past. More water taken from that makes it difficult for aquifers to replenish themselves.

   Whitman said the ranching industry is under extreme pressure because of the drought and added that a hay shortage can be expected, too.  

   And though the state cannot provide direct relief in terms of loans or grants to irrigators, Whitman, Ward and Katy Coba, director of Oregon Department of Agriculture, all pointed to positive work done by such groups as Klamath Water Users Association and Klamath Water and Power Agency to stanch the demand for water.

   Through water idling and groundwater pumping, Whitman cited the work of the Klamath Irrigation District in reducing their demand significantly.

   He also applauded the Bureau of Reclamation for keeping water in Upper Klamath Lake that could later be used for the Klamath Project.

   Due to the cooperation and forward-thinking of Basin irrigators, the governor’s natural resources director expressed confidence that no big surprises are in store.  

   Water adjudication challenges

   Meanwhile, although the Klamath River Basin Adjudication is currently enforceable, the first of what could be many challenges have appeared.

   Last week, Klamath County Circuit received two stays filed on behalf of a group of Upper Basin contestants.

   Trial court administrator Valerie Paulson described a stay as a request not to let all or part of the final order of determination take effect.  

   Represented by Portland-based lawyer Elizabeth Howard, the Upper Basin contestants have filed stays against various instream claims, Upper Klamath Lake levels, and the Klamath Project’s consolidated claim.

   The consolidated claim facilitated a nocall agreement with the Klamath Tribes ensuring they would not call for Upper Klamath Lake levels trumping pre-1908 water rights.

   Cameron Wogan, presiding judge of the Klamath County courts, is tasked with handling appeals against the adjudication. Though he hasn’t yet set a timeline, the court administrator said he is getting ready to issue an order about further proceedings in the case.

   For those interested in accessing these and future challenges to the water adjudication, they can be found online at  http://tinyurl  . com/cwke863 and by clicking on the “Klamath Basin Adjudication” tab on the right side of the screen.

    dschwartz@heraldandnews   com



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