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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Water shortage man-made, but pick the right people,
and right causes, for blame

Published July 26, 2004

Restored wetlands lose more water than pastures

By Doug Whitsett - Guest columnist

Doug Whitsett is president of Water for Life, an organization formed in 1990 by farmers and ranchers in Oregon's Klamath Basin to represent agricultural water users' concerns in legislative, legal and agency proceedings. He is also the Republican candidate for state Senate from District 28

They say that the shortage of water in Eastern Oregon is man-caused, and they are right. However, the shortage is not being caused by cattlemen, dairymen and farmers as they suggest. Rather, it is being caused by the management errors of our own government.

Let us count the ways that our most precious natural resource continues to be wasted through mismanagement.

Throughout Eastern Oregon, water stored for irrigation continues to be reallocated for the perceived benefit of fish listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Benefits of these reallocations often are not measurable either in habitat or species recovery.

For example, water stored in Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation continues to be withheld from Klamath Reclamation Project farmers in order to maintain higher lake levels for the perceived benefit of endangered suckers. This continues to happen despite repeated statements by the National Academy of Sciences that these elevated lake levels do not benefit suckers. In addition, water stored for irrigation in Upper Klamath Lake continues to be reallocated to enhance stream flow in the Klamath River for the perceived benefit of threatened coho salmon. This continues despite, once again, repeated statements by the National Academy of Sciences that these elevated flows cannot help the coho, and, if fact, may cause them measurable harm.

They tell us that wetland restoration is essential to improve habitat, water quality and water storage capacity. In the Upper Klamath Basin more than 90,000 acres of verdant, productive fields that were previously reclaimed from swampland have been "restored' to wetlands. No empirical evidence is available to show that this restored habitat has measurably increased the numbers of suckers. No empirical evidence documents any measurable improvement in Upper Klamath Lake water quality. However, what is measurable is the 2.75 to 4 feet of annual evapo-transpiration from the surface of these restored wetlands.

This wetland evapo-transpiration exceeds the expected evapo-transpiration from irrigated pasture by at least 1.5 feet per year.

A lot of water's being wasted

Restored wetlands are currently wasting as much as 150,000 acre-feet of water each year. These losses - roughly equivalent to half the amount of water used for irrigation by the entire Klamath Project - are resulting in measurable reductions of stream flows into Upper Klamath Lake and in the Klamath River.

What is also measurable is the loss of between $60 million and $90 million in annual beef production that was derived from this verdant, highly productive pastureland prior to "restoration" to wetlands. In fact, no measurable water quality improvement in Upper Klamath Lake has resulted from the removal of cattle from some of the most productive pastures on earth.

More than a century of fire suppression has resulted in the growth of a vast juniper forest in Eastern Oregon. Natural Resources Conservation Service data estimates that each mature juniper tree uses from 25 to 50 gallons of water per day during the growing season. The service estimates an average of 200 trees per acre of juniper forest.

At 35 gallons per tree per day and a growing season of 150 days, the water "use" would be about 1 million gallons per acre, or about 3 acre-feet per acre of forest.

More than 300,000 acres of juniper encroachment now exists in the Upper Klamath Basin. Arguably, this vast juniper encroachment is consuming about as much water annually as flows out of the Basin at Keno.

Rather than address these gross management errors that cause our water shortage, our government has addressed only symptoms of the problem by focusing on "water banks" and ground water extraction to substitute for the loss of surface flows.

Attempting to conserve water by water-banking in the Klamath Project that is more than 90 percent efficient is oxymoronic at best. Removing pieces of the dynamic working Project creates inefficiencies in other parts of the Project that arguably waste more water than the water bank is purported to save.

In spite of clear evidence that the water bank does not produce significant water for in-stream flow, we continue to be required to idle ever more acreage of productive Project farmland to "satisfy" this fictitious requirement for in-stream flow.

Because the water bank does not produce the anticipated increase in stream flows, our ground water aquifers are being tapped to supplement them. The immediate response is to restore in-stream flows. Unfortunately, it also means unacceptable long-term depletion of the aquifer resource. The cost of pumping water for irrigation increases as aquifer water levels decline. These productive lands will also be idled when the cost of pumping exceeds the economic benefits of irrigation.

To resolve these problems we must stop denying the real causes and focus on appropriate management of water and revenue resources. If we, as a government, intend to continue to allocate more water for stream flows, then we must direct revenue to correcting issues that are actually causing the stream flow reductions.

Direct money to water storage

Again, the primary issues are scientifically unsupportable demands for water for the alleged benefit of endangered and threatened fish species, scientifically unsupportable expansion of wetland restoration and failure to recognize and mitigate the extensive juniper encroachment. These genuine issues can only be resolved when we stop denying and perpetuating our failed management policies by blaming agriculture.

Alternatively, we must direct our revenue to construction of additional offstream, deep-water storage that will actually address the problems we have created. This could easily be accomplished without altering the revenue stream into the Upper Klamath Basin by placing a five-year moratorium on minimum Upper Klamath Lake levels and on minimum Klamath River flows at Iron gate.

According to the National Academy of Sciences reports, such a moratorium would have no detrimental effect on threatened or endangered fish species. By simply using the surface water stored for irrigation for actually irrigating crops, and by diverting the revenue currently spent on water-banking, groundwater substitution, studies and regulations for capital expenditures, deep- water storage at Long Lake could be paid for and largely constructed within those five years.

We must direct our efforts and available revenue toward the actual man-made causes of our water shortage rather than wasting our efforts and available revenue on addressing symptoms of that shortage.




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