Subscribe Today! Please read: Readers of local content on the Herald and News website – heraldandnews.com – will require a subscription beginning today. For the first few months, non-subscribers will still be able to view 10 articles for free. If you are not already a subscriber, now is a great time to join for as little as $10/month!
'A disaster on our hands'

Water from the headgates of Upper Klamath Lake travels through the A canal.

The Klamath Project had already been anticipating an extreme shortfall in available water in 2020 but is now facing a possible water shutoff by or before July.

The water allocation of 140,000 acre feet for the Project announced in April will likely drop to a total 80,000 acre feet for the year, with an unofficial estimate of 55,000 acre feet left for the remainder of the irrigation season and potentially reaching the end of the water supply by or before July, according to Gene Souza, manager for the Klamath Irrigation District and Brad Kirby, manager and president of the Tulelake Irrigation District. For comparison, 350,000 acre feet is a full allocation for the Project.

The unofficial allocation estimates are based on the May 1 Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) forecast, which indicates the Klamath Project is more than six inches below normal precipitation projections.

“We did not get the precipitation that had been anticipated in April, which further reduced the amount of water that flowed into Upper Klamath Lake,” Souza said, “and the reduction of water supply in Upper Klamath Lake has resulted in problems with the allocated supply of 140,000 acre feet.”

Both Souza and Kirby learned of the unofficial estimate of a remaining 55,000-acre allocation from Bureau of Reclamation technical experts on Friday morning.

“That amount is an impossible amount for the Klamath Project, and it will mean the end for quite a few, most, if not all family farms in the Klamath Project,” Kirby said.

“It’s devastating,” he added.

Efforts are underway by Reclamation and Farm Service Agency to seek funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a currently unfunded statutory authority established in 2001, specific to the Klamath Project under a drought situation.

In a letter signed by Jeffrey Payne, deputy regional director for Reclamation, and Barry Bushue, state executive officer for the Farm Service Agency, both alert Bill Northey, undersecretary for Farm Production Conservation at U.S. Department of Agriculture, about the “strong possibility that the Klamath Project will simply go dry by mid-season, with complete loss of crop and investment, a disaster of a magnitude that the basin has never experienced.”

The letter from Reclamation and Farm Service Agency to Farm Production Conservation at U.S. Department of Agriculture, states: “While 2020 is the second-worst year of water shortage in the 115-year history of the Klamath Project, it may be more challenging to administer than 2001 because, although the basin does have clear priorities for water delivery, those priorities are not aligned with the most efficient use of water in the basin and curtailment strategies for such extreme conditions have never been needed.

“Further, the infrastructure was not designed to allow for enforcement of these rules in such extreme conditions,” the letter adds. “As such, water may be available to some producers and not at all to others, and to some for a period of time but not long enough to finish a crop.”

Payne echoed his letter during a Klamath Project Drought Response Agency Zoom call on Wednesday, noting, “We have an emergency drought situation here that is unprecedented in the Klamath Basin. The gravity of that situation has been articulated to the highest levels of Interior and Agriculture at this point.

“None of the programs that are available through USDA currently are set up for the type of disaster and emergency response that is being experienced in the Klamath Basin or is likely to be experienced over this growing season,” Payne added.

During the same Zoom call, the KPDRA on Wednesday directed staff to develop a program proposal for a partial season program for individuals who have already started irrigating this season.

Members of the KPDRA will likely consider the program proposal’s approval on Monday during a 2 p.m. Zoom call. The meeting is open to the public via Zoom.

“That program would be focused on a partial season program for somebody that has already irrigated and now under extenuating circumstances, no longer would irrigate for whatever reason that may be,” said Marc Staunton, chairman of the KPDRA. “What’s causing or driving the proposal of doing the program is just the fact that everyone is planning on 140,000 acre feet.”

Staunton said there are a lot of individuals that have already made decisions about their crops.

“They’re in a really bad spot,” he said.

Staunton said normally, the KPDRA’s job is to manage reduced demand so that all water users can get through the year. The agency was established in 2018.

“This year it’s pretty much mitigating loss because everyone is running or already ran out of water,” Staunton said.

Land idling encouraged

Land idling is being heavily encouraged for water users in the Klamath Project under the current circumstances.

KPDRA board members on Wednesday also heard from Moss Driscoll, senior water and lands specialist for Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office, regarding the situation.

“Reclamation is sounding the alarm that we have, based on the new May inflow forecast, effectively a disaster on our hands in some respects,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll said there is “no certainty” as to the total volume that will be available to the Project until the day the irrigation season is over.

Souza emphasized the magnitude of the reduction in available water.

“This is a significant reduction from the 140,000 acre feet we were told in April,” Souza said in an email on Friday. “Farmers have planted crops, hired workers, and have made plans based upon the 140,000 acre feet … and the rug is currently being pulled out from underneath them.

“2020 is going to be worse economically on the Klamath Basin than 2001,” Souza added.

“Millions of dollars of seed are already in the ground.”

In anticipation of the possibility for a reduced allocation, KID on Wednesday approved a shift from a demand-based water delivery system to a supply-based system, with the outcome of a waiting list for agriculture producers.

{p class=”x_MsoNormal”}The irrigation district also amended their water delivery policy with strict enforcement of illegal water use.

{p class=”x_MsoNormal”}”Waiting lists are in effect and getting longer,” Souza said. “Rates of delivery are going down to extend season as long as possible allowing for ground water pumped into the canals to still be delivered. When we are out of Upper Klamath Lake water … pumping through our system will no longer be an option.”

{p class=”x_MsoNormal”}Souza said water users in KID could be out of water between June 15 and July 1 if stored water continues to be diverted downriver for in-stream purposes.

{p class=”x_MsoNormal”}”I am doing everything within the limits of our infrastructure to extend the season as long as possible,” Souza said.

{p class=”x_MsoNormal”}‘Worst of all possible worlds’

Paul Simmons, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, confirmed that the scenario playing out currently is worse than the events surrounding the water shutoff in April 2001.

“When you heard zero (allocation), you knew what to do,” Simmons said. “This year when you saw (140,000 acre feet) coming, you knew what to do. Now you’re being told it could be different.

“That’s the worst of all possible worlds,” Simmons added.

KID President Ty Kliewer said that in 2001, while water was shut off to producers, he believed water users were on the “same page, going the same way” from that point.

“It went from terrible to beyond impossible and this is worse than 2001,” Kliewer said of the 2020 water year.

“We’re in an unprecedented crisis here,” he added.

“Every land mine that could possibly be in the field — we’ve stepped on it.”

Project irrigators are encouraged to reach out to the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency to learn more about idling their land through the Klamath Water Bank.

“Idling is by far your best hope,” Kliewer said.

Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office Manager Jeff Nettleton could not be reached for comment as of Friday afternoon.

For more information about the KPDRA and the Klamath Water Bank, go online at www.klamathwaterbank.com or call 541-630-0752.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.