(Long) Klamath Water Q&A
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Wed Aug 29 22:39:36 EST 2001
>From The Oregonian, Aug. 29, 2001, p B8
Clearing up water issues on Klamath Basin
Officials and the public deal with saving farms and fish during a dry
summer in Southern Oregon
By MICHAEL MILSTEIN, The Oregonian
The drought gripping the Klamath Basin and the federal government's
decision to shut off irrigation water to farmers have raised many
questions about agriculture in the basin, the people affected, the
degree of the impacts and the integrity of the ecosystem. Here are
Q. Why was water to farms cut off?
A. Upper Klamath Lake, a large natural lake near Klamath Falls, is
home to two endangered species of fish called suckers. Water from the
lake flows into the Klamath River, which holds coho salmon, a
threatened species. Biologists working under the federal Endangered
Species Act said the lake and river must stay at certain levels to
avoid harm to the two fish species. Because of the drought, that left
little water for farmers this summer.
The dam installed at the outlet of Upper Klamath Lake nearly a
century ago id not raise the lake. Instead, it replaced a natural
barrier at the outlet of the lake so water managers could steadily
lower the lake and ensure a reliable flow of water to hydroelectric
plants downstream. The lake cannot store much extra water - beyond its
natural capacity and beyond what fish need - for farmers to use in dry
Q. How many farms, covering how many acres, lost their irrigation
A. Agricultural lands in the Klamath Basin total more than 400,000
acres. Only lands in the federal Klamath Reclamation Project were
affected, however, because the Endangered Species Act holds federal
operations to a higher standard. About 1,400 farms, covering about
230,000 acres, are in the federal project. About 20 percent of the
acreage, including roughly 200 farms, received normal amounts of water
from reservoirs other than Upper Klamath Lake. So closer to 1,200
farms were affected.
That figure, however, uses the federal definition of a farm as a
section of land that has the potential to produce at least $1,000 in
agricultural goods. It would include suburban pastures or "hobby"
farms that might not fit the popular notion of a revenue-producing
farm. The Oregon Department of Employment estimates that about 500
farm operations affected by the water shutoff receive a majority of
their income from agriculture.
Q. Is there any other water for those farms?
A. Many farms in the Klamath project have drilled wells this year or
during previous droughts and are using those to irrigate crops. Oregon
authorities have authorized nearly 100 emergency wells this year to
provide water to about 20,000 acres. The state also has allowed the
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop 15 additional wells. All the
wells together should produce up to 100,000 acre-feet of water,
according to the Oregon Department of Water Resources, close to
one-quarter of the roughly 450,000 acre-feet of water that Klamath
project farms use in a normal year. They would typically use less in a
The state also extended permits for 40 existing wells so farmers
could continue to use them for irrigation this year and next year.
Q. How bad is the Klamath Basin drought?
A. It's one of the worst, but not the worst. Since October of last
year, automated weather sites in the Klamath Basin have recorded 54
percent of normal precipitation. A stream gauge in the Williamson
River below its junction with the Sprague River showed it flowing at
about 395 cubic feet per second this week, which is among the 10
percent lowest flows recorded since 1917. But it is not as low as the
record low 285 cubic feet per second recorded during the 1994 drought.
Q. How much will the water shutoff affect the local economy?
A. That remains unclear and subject to much debate. According to the
Oregon Department of Employment, in 1999 there were about 1,900
agriculture-related jobs in the Klamath Project with a payroll of
about $33 million. Not all of those jobs have been lost. All personal
income in Oregon's Klamath County (which includes some but not all of
the reclamation project) totals more than $1.2 billion. Agricultural
income represents less than 3 percent of that, according to the U.S.
Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Farm-related jobs made up 5.4 percent of the county's total
employment, according to the state's Department of Employment. Farm
receipts in Klamath County totaled $119 million in 1999, the last year
with data available, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported. That
does not include receipts of farm-related businesses such as tractor
dealers or irrigation suppliers. Some estimates put the total economic
impact of the lost water at around $200 million, but that depends on
assumptions of how many times farm dollars circulate in local pockets
before leaving the area.
Q. Why do suckers and coho salmon carry so much weight?
A. Because they are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act,
passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon in 1973 The law says
federal agencies must avoid actions that jeopardize the future of a
species that is already threatened or endangered. It does not weight
the commercial value of the species or the impact on local economies
of protecting it.
The Klamath Tribes once relied on suckers for food, and courts have
rules that they maintain treaty rights to healthy fish and wildlife.
Scientists do not know how many suckers remain but say the population
is vulnerable because fish kills caused by toxic algae blooms in the
lake have left fish in only a narrow range of ages.
Salmon once supported a strong fishery along the coast of Northern
California and Southern Oregon. That fishery has since declined, in
part because the Klamath River does not carry as much clean water as
it used to.
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
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