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April 11, 2005  

Plan Limits Water Use in Klamath Area
  • Farmers will get 70% of their normal allotment for irrigation during the drought but fishermen and environmentalists fear ecological calamity.
  • By Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer
    SACRAMENTO Facing what is shaping up to be the third-driest year on record along the Klamath River, the federal government has unveiled a plan of water releases that hits both fish and farmers.

    Irrigators in the fertile Klamath Basin, an agricultural swath straddling the Oregon-California border, will get about 70% of their usual water allotment and are being asked to cut use by an additional 15%. The plan was released Friday.

    "We're hopeful we can get everyone through the year," said Jeff McCracken of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the sprawling network of dams and irrigation canals in the West. "We're asking everyone to tighten up water usage."

    But fishermen and environmentalists say the cutbacks are disproportionately steep for the river, raising the prospect of the sort of ecological calamity that in 2002 resulted in the die-off of 70,000 adult salmon in the lower Klamath. Low flow caused poor water quality, which helped lead to an outbreak of disease.

    "Here we go again," said Steve Pedery of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "They're going through some amazing contortions to provide as much water to irrigators as they can."

    Pedery said the Klamath National Wildlife Refuges will be particularly hard hit. The vast expanse of wetlands, a major stop for rare bald eagles and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway, will receive about half what is typically needed, he said. Meanwhile, the river home to the endangered coho salmon will see water levels sag through the summer.

    McCracken, however, said federal water managers were well aware of potential problems and would act quickly if needed to ensure fish survive as they make their way upriver this fall.

    "We haven't had any problems for a couple of years and we're going to continue to operate the system to meet everyone's needs," he said.

    Rob Crawford, a Klamath farmer in Tule Lake, Calif., took exception to complaints by environmentalists. He said farmers are cooperating to conserve in every way possible: holding off early irrigation, installing more efficient water systems, planting less-thirsty crops.

    In addition, a federal program is expected to idle about 30,000 acres of farmland, roughly one-tenth of the Klamath Basin agricultural acreage, this year.

    "Everyone understands how tight a water year it is," Crawford said, adding that some environmentalists and fishermen remain intent on "poisoning the process."

    Rains drenched Southern California through the winter, but the Pacific Northwest is experiencing a steep drought, and the Klamath region hasn't been spared. Snowpack, which provides water to the river during the summer and fall, is running about one-third of normal.

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