SALEM — It may be several months late, but farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Project finally know just how much water is available for the 2018 irrigation season — pending an injunction requested by the Klamath Tribes to protect endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake.
The Bureau of Reclamation released its annual operations and drought plans for the Klamath Project on June 18, serving 230,000 irrigated acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Regulators calculate the water supply based on factors such as stream flows, reservoir storage and existing legal obligations for fish. According to the 2018 plans, irrigators can use 233,911 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River, which is 40 percent less than the historical full demand.
As of June 18, the bureau had already diverted 38,000 acre-feet for irrigation, leaving roughly 196,000 acre-feet still in the pipeline.
Jeff Nettleton, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation office in Klamath Falls, said this year has been challenging on all fronts, from the lack of usual snowfall to a court order requiring more water in the Klamath River to protect salmon from disease.
"I appreciate the willingness of the entire community to work together to seek solutions to meet these challenges," Nettleton said. "Careful management of irrigation and continued water conservation efforts will help to minimize negative impacts of the reduced water supply as we proceed through the season."
The Klamath Basin, like much of Southern Oregon, had a drier-than-usual winter, with snowpack at 55 percent of normal by April 1, 46 percent of normal by May 1 and completely melted by June 1.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service anticipates stream flows will be as low as 26 percent of normal in parts of the basin through September, and the bureau warns that most agricultural producers will not have enough water "to meet the requirements of good irrigation practices for the acres served by the Project."
A federal judge in San Francisco also upheld a ruling earlier this year that requires more water from Upper Klamath Lake be kept in-river to flush away a deadly salmon-killing parasite known as C. shasta. The bureau released 38,425 acre-feet of water from April 6-15 and another 50,000 acre-feet from May 7-28 to comply with the order, which was secured by the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes in 2017.
That leaves the Klamath Project short its usual water allocation, though irrigators can expect a near full supply of water from Clear Lake and Gerber reservoirs.
Scott White, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said it has been a "crazy, crazy year" but nothing in the latest operations plan caught him by surprise.
"It's going to be tough going, but we'll be able to get through," White said. "In a drought year, that's all you can really ask for."
The big question now, White said, is whether the Klamath Tribes win an injunction to hold more water in Upper Klamath Lake to protect endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers.
The tribes sued the Bureau of Reclamation, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May. A hearing scheduled for July 11 before Judge William Orrick in San Francisco has since been rescheduled for Friday, July 20. The KWUA has also filed a motion seeking to have the case dismissed, arguing it should be heard in a different venue.
Tribal harvest of suckers decreased from more than 10,000 to 687 between 1968 and 1985, and today just two fish are harvested for ceremonial purposes. But if the injunction succeeds, White said it would essentially shut down the Klamath Project.
"All the dollars put into the land thus far would be wasted," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation said she cannot comment on pending litigation.
Information from: Herald and News, http://www.heraldandnews.com