Farms, fish on the arid California-Oregon border see little water

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Farms that depend on irrigation from a depleted, state-managed lake on the California-Oregon border and a Native American tribe fighting to protect fragile salmon will both receive extremely limited amounts of water this summer, a historic one Drought and record-low reservoir levels drag on across the western United States.

More than 1,000 farmers and ranchers drawing water from a 407-kilometer river that flows from upper Klamath Lake into the Pacific Ocean will have access to about a seventh the amount they could get in a wetter year, one said Federal authority announced on Monday. Salmon downstream get about half the water they would get if the reservoir were full.

It is the third straight year that a severe drought has hit farmers, fish and tribes in a region where there is not enough water to meet competing demands. Last year, no water flowed through the Klamath Reclamation Project’s main irrigation canal at all, and thousands of juvenile salmon downstream died without releasing reservoirs to support the health of the Klamath River.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the irrigation project, announced $15 million in relief for affected farmers and $5 million for Native American tribes as a result of its decision, warning farmers not to take water beyond what was ordered or Further irrigation cuts risk legal action. The agency decides allocations each year, considering court rulings that require certain lake levels to support two federally endangered fish species.

Across the American West, a 22-year mega-drought last year deepened so severely that the region is now in its driest spell in at least 1,200 years — a worst-case climate change scenario playing out in real time, according to a study last month.

Inflow to Upper Klamath Lake is at a record low, water managers said, and water allocations could fall further if drought conditions worsen this summer.

“We wish we had better news today. Of course there are no winners in this critical year as all interests suffer – fisheries, farmer tribes and waterfowl alike – but given the current hydrology we have to work with we have done our job as well as we could,” said Ernest Conant from Presidium Regional Director.

Irrigation companies reacted with shock and anger to the news, saying they weren’t sure they could survive another growing season without adequate water supplies. The amount of water available is less than 15% of what farmers need, said Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, which operates a farm in Tulelake, California.

“We have 170,000 acres (68,800 hectares) that could be irrigated this year and we’re ready to get to work,” he said. “In a single acre we can produce over 50,000 pounds (22,700 kilograms) of potatoes or 6,000 pounds (2,700 kilograms) of wheat. Most of this country will not produce food this year because the government is refusing water for irrigation.”

The waters of the Klamath River, impounded into Upper Klamath Lake, are the hub of the nearly 200,000-acre (80,940 hectare) Klamath Reclamation Project, a major agricultural powerhouse with more than 1,000 farms and ranches. Today, farmers there grow everything from mint to alfalfa to potatoes that go to In ‘N Out Burger, Frito-Lay and Kettle Foods.

But the reservoir water is also a source of conflict between competing demands, and amid the historic drought in the carefully managed river basin in recent years there hasn’t been enough water to get around. Before 2020, the last time water allocation in the Klamath Basin reached such a boiling point was in 2001, when the US government dispatched federal marshals to the area during a drought year and farmers threatened to breach the main gates.

By law, the lake’s water must be kept at a certain level to protect its sucker fish, a key species to the heritage of southern Oregon’s Klamath tribes. This year’s water decision directs irrigators to keep the lake’s waters above a certain level for spawning sucker fish in April and May, and then at a different level for the rest of the summer — but even at those levels, the lake will be federally regulated do not meet the prescribed minimum values ​​for the spring months.

Farmers can start tapping the limited water on Friday.

But the federally threatened coho salmon that live in the lower Klamath River below the reservoir also need spurts of water from the lake to keep a deadly parasite at bay that thrives in warm and slow-moving water. The salmon are revered by the Yurok Tribe, California’s second largest Native American tribe.

A so-called “flush flow” of water about half the normal amount – and half of what farmers receive – will also be released on Friday.

Yurok vice chairman Frankie Myers said the fact that salmon, sucker fish and waterfowl are competing for the region’s water is a “direct sign of the ecological collapse being caused by water abstraction.”

“While we are pleased that the river will receive minimal protection under this plan, it is not a time for celebration. Salmon runs will continue to suffer under these conditions, and as climate change intensifies, such conservation measures will become increasingly important,” Myers said.

The reduced water allocations for the Klamath Reclamation Project will also affect two National Wildlife Refuges in the region, which will be filled with irrigation runoff. The refuges are home to tens of thousands of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Last year, environmentalists and farmers used pumps to pool water from two standing wetlands into a deeper one to prevent another outbreak of avian botulism like the one that killed 50,000 ducks in 2020.

Hundreds of domestic wells affected by increased groundwater extraction have also gone dry since late summer last year.

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