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Double hit leaves Klamath dry
Low lake level, plus required river flow delay water deliveries

Mateusz Perkowski, Capital Press 3/12/09

The 2009 irrigation season is proving troublesome for Klamath Basin farmers even before it's begun.

The amount of water stored in Upper Klamath Lake is insufficient to meet federal fish habitat standards, prompting the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to delay water deliveries to irrigators.

"Basically, what we're up against is a tough water year," said Luther Horsley, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. "We're going to have to be as conservative as possible to make it through the year."

Stream flow into the Upper Klamath Lake is projected to be roughly 30 percent below average this season, and the lake is roughly one foot below the minimum level set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect endangered fish.

"There's too much demand for the supply we have here," said Kevin Moore, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Basin office.

The idea is to allow lake levels to build up through mid-April so irrigation won't need to be interrupted later in the season, Moore said.

"If we delay for two weeks, we'll have enough water for operations for the rest of the year," he said. "Of course, in this business there's no such thing as a guarantee."

Ironically, another federal fish habitat standard set forth by the National Marine Fisheries Service is contributing to depleted lake levels, Horsley said.

In 2002, the agency issued a biological opinion requiring 1,725 cubic feet of water per second to be released from the Iron Gate Dam along the Klamath River, which draws water from the Upper Klamath Lake and other tributaries.

"These biological opinions are uncoordinated," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. "There's very little coordination between federal agencies."

Water levels in the Upper Klamath Lake are low due to inadequate inflow last month, not because of irrigation diversions, he said.

In essence, the biological opinion regarding Endangered Species Act protections for coho salmon in the Klamath River trumped the biological opinion aimed at protecting endangered suckers in the Upper Klamath Lake, said Addington.

"The ESA violated itself in February," he said.

The lack of a coordinated strategy creates tremendous uncertainty for farmers, Addington said.

If the Klamath Basin continues to experience dry weather in early spring, that could heighten farmers' need for water and strain supplies once deliveries begin, said Horsley.

"The delay in the startup could create initial demand greater than normal, which could play harder on those lake levels," he said.

Fortunately, snowpack levels in the Klamath Basin are not significantly below average this year.

Snowpacks in the region are at about 92 percent of average, according to the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. That's roughly 15 percent below the peak level expected by early April, according to NRCS.

However, relatively adequate snow levels won't help the current situation if temperatures remain low at high elevations and freeze up stream flow, said Horsley.

"It's going to come down eventually, but it's not going to come down and fill those lakes soon enough to start diversions," he said.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com

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