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Basin turns nervous eye to snowpack

As the sun keeps eating away at the mountain snowpack, Klamath Basin farmers and ranchers are trying to digest a drought plan implemented Wednesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Bureau officials dusted off the plan, crafted in 1991, because of continual dry conditions and dropping streamflow forecasts for the irrigation season, which runs from April to mid-October.

In the drought plan, most parks, cemeteries and athletic fields will go dry, and smaller water user districts will have to figure ways to get by with less as water keeps flowing to the Klamath Irrigation District and Tulelake Irrigation District. Those two districts have the highest priority for water under the drought plan.

Christine Karas, deputy manager of the Klamath Reclamation Project, said a dramatic change in weather could still make the plan unnecessary.

"But we want to get out in front of it and not wait," Karas said.

A dramatic change in weather doesn't seem to be coming any time soon.

Unseasonably warm temperatures baked the Basin for the past week, shriveling the snowpack in the mountains. Jon Lea, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said March is usually a month when the snowpack is still building.

Instead, it's shrinking - daily. As a result, the NRCS figures are going down fast.

The Klamath Basin snowpack on Wednesday was measured at 38 percent of average. By Friday it was down to 34 percent. Saturday it was 32 percent.

"I guess it is just getting worse as far as percentages are concerned," he said. "Here we are sitting in June-like weather in March."

Already bad at the beginning of the month, the snowpack is now in worse shape than it was in 2001, Lea said. In 2001, Bureau officials didn't put water through the Project's canals because of a water shortage and endangered species regulations.

Officials have said changes in management plans should make water deliveries in the project possible if the water situation is similar to 2001. But, with the every shrinking snowpack, there could be less water to go around this year.

On March 13, 2001, the snowpack was at 53 percent of average for the date.

To figure how divvy up water under the drought plan, Bureau officials plan to meet with representatives from the Project's irrigation districts in early April.

The drought plan has been put into effect twice before - in 1992 and 1994. Response to the plan is those years was mixed.

In spring 1992, the Bureau invited farmers and ranchers to ask questions about the plan in a meeting at the Midland Grange. The meeting was an "awakening," said Jim Bryant, retired chief of the project's water and land operations. Bryant was one of the Bureau officials who crafted the drought plan.

Many farmers and ranchers didn't like the priority system because it pitted them against each other, he said, but the prioritization of Project water users was written into the more than 200 contracts irrigators signed with the government. Some didn't know they had a contract for water, Bryant said.

He said there were difficulties in getting the plan to work on the ground. For example, some water normally would pass through a second-priority irrigation district on its way to a first-priority district. Some of those problems and questions linger today and could come up again with the implementation of the plan.

The Project ended up getting through both 1992 and 1994 with relatively full water deliveries. Since then Endangered Species Act requirements have tightened, and the Bureau doesn't have the flexibility it did in those years.

"It will take a lot of cooperation and work to get through this year if the weather does not change dramatically in the next moth or so," Bryant said in an e-mail. "The drought plan will provide the framework only, with the details to be worked out by the Basin community. I am sure that their will be many inequities in the distribution of the water if the dire forecasts are realized."

Many in the agricultural community still don't like the plan, said Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District.

"From a farmer's standpoint it doesn't make any sense," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with the productivity of land. It just is based on the kind of contract."

As a result, Solem said, a parcel of highly productive land planted with a crop that uses little water could go dry, while a less-productive parcel planted with a thirsty crop could get water because of the contract the land owner holds.

Complicating matters this year is the wait for word on which landowners will be included in the Bureau's water bank, a program designed to boost flows down the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon, Solem said. The bank, in its third year, is made up largely of water gained from letting fields lie fallow, and from irrigators switching to well water.

"We don't know how many acres will be idled in our district," Solem said.

Although the Klamath Irrigation District is one of the groups getting top priority for Project water, Solem said its officials will need to be part of the planning process because it supplies many of the smaller districts in the Project.

"The bottom line is we have to devise a system to get as many acres their water to the end (of irrigation season) - that's the goal," Solem said.





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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