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Klamath irrigation

An irrigated field near Tulelake.

At a rare joint meeting between all three of their leadership boards, Klamath, Siskiyou and Modoc Counties discussed ways to support agricultural communities during the Klamath Basin’s historic drought this year.

Farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Project will receive 33,000 acre-feet of water, less than 10% of their normal allocation, more than a month later than normal. Irrigators on tributaries to the Lower Klamath River, like the Scott River, are also expecting water deliveries to be curtailed during the summer.

Though organizations representing irrigators are engaged in litigation against what they see as a mismanagement of the Endangered Species Act causing recent decades’ water shortages, the primary purpose of the meeting was to request more immediate federal funding for drought relief this summer. The Klamath Project Drought Response Agency is currently anticipating about $15 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made an additional $10 million available based on the drought in 2018.

The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, Modoc County Board of Supervisors and Klamath County Board of Commissioners met in Tulelake Friday morning to hear testimony from Klamath Water Users Association leadership and Klamath Project producers, who detailed the dire conditions facing the Basin’s agriculture and wildlife refuges.

Each county leader signed two joint letters — one calling for increased federal funding to assist Klamath Basin irrigators and one in response to a letter from Basin tribes and conservation groups sent to President Joe Biden April 16.

The first letter requested an additional $30 million in drought funding for the KPDRA and is being sent to the congressional delegations of Oregon and California, along with each state’s congressional delegations with jurisdiction over the Klamath Basin. It also brought attention to what the counties consider “fractured conditions” surrounding the pursuit of long-term solutions to the Basin’s water crisis.

“Outside interests – from both sides of the political spectrum – will attempt to use this crisis to advance their own particular agendas, quite possibly to the detriment of our communities,” county leaders wrote. “We urge that you continue to work with us to ensure that these outside interests do not detract from real, meaningful solutions that can only come from those at the local level who truly understand the critical issues facing our counties this year.”

The second letter, sent to President Biden, expressed concerns with some of the requests in tribes’ and environmental groups’ letter last month, including an ask for federal funding to carry out the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which will remove four dams on the Klamath River beginning in 2023. Siskiyou County has filed various documents opposing aspects of the project in its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proceedings.

“After over a decade of assurances that the KHSA would not rely on federal funding, it appears that marketing point has been abandoned,” the counties wrote.

The counties were also dismayed with the April 16 letter’s request of $50 million for water rights transfers to benefit Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which will likely receive no water from the Klamath Project this summer.

The California Waterfowl Association, one of the signatories to the April 16 letter, is working with a rancher in the Wood River Valley who has agreed to transfer part of his water right to the refuge this year.

The original letter requested the money “for permanent land and/or water acquisition for voluntary sellers to transfer instream flow — without harm to Tribal and private property.” County leaders read that as buying out whole farms and ranches in an attempt to reduce the agricultural footprint in the Basin.

The counties wrote that the signatories to the April 16 letter did not discuss that prospect with them and that they would not support any efforts “that center around permanent retirement of family farms and ranches.”

“Any funding from your administration should make the prosperity of both our agricultural and fisheries dependent communities a top priority, as opposed to extinguishing one to promote another,” the counties wrote.

Mark Hennelly, vice president for legislative affairs at CWA, said taking any farm or ranch out of commission is not the goal of the water rights transfer outlined in the April 16 letter. While the initial 4,500 acre-feet this year is only coming from one Wood River rancher and a few others will need to be looped in to acquire a goal of 30,000 acre-feet for the refuge (with an estimated total cost of $60 million), Hennelly said no rancher will be expected to transfer the entirety of their water right.

The Wood River rancher transferring the initial water this year still plans to graze cattle on his land, Hennelly said, though not as intensively — but the ranch itself will remain intact. Hennelly said the same would be true for other landowners CWA seeks out to acquire the rest of the 30,000 acre-feet.

“Our goal is never to negatively impact agriculture. We’ve said from the outset that we want to be partners with farmers, and we recognize the value of what they bring to the waterfowl conservation equation,” Hennelly said.

Hennelly said that as much as half the food waterfowl consume in the Basin is grown deliberately by Project farmers, many of whom lease land on the wildlife refuges and have contracts to leave some crops for birds. Even farmers that don’t grow food for birds still provide habitat for them when their fields are in production, and so do canals, drainage ditches and other irrigation infrastructure when they have sufficient water.

“The last thing we want to do is start taking those food resources away from waterfowl,” Hennelly said. “We want to keep those guys in business as much as we can.”

Despite their concerns with other stakeholders’ recent asks, the counties said there were other requests in the original letter they could get behind and that they remained committed to working with all groups local to the Basin to improve a continually worsening situation.

“We hope this letter serves to acknowledge our desire to continue to promote the need for collaboration and long-term solutions that provide a benefit for all involved, and that we are willing to work in any way we can to promote the success of all affected communities,” they wrote.