It may be a unique situation when a dam removal might mean more water for farmers instead of less, but the Klamath Basin is a unique place.
A report released last summer by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) is leading more and more Basin farmers and ranchers to believe that dam removal may have something big to offer those who rely on irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake.
Dam removal could free up more water and that has some farmers cheering the efforts of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), the organization tasked with undamming the Klamath River.
A recent article in the Capital Press featured this paragraph: Tracey Liskey, owner of Liskey Farms in Klamath Falls and a former member of the Oregon Board of Agriculture, said he and other farmers in the Klamath Project are anxious to see dam removal go forward, so the ESA might loosen its grip on the region.
“Agriculture is behind trying to save the fish, so we can get more water,” Liskey said. “Hopefully we’ll have more salmon than we know what to do with.”
By way of background, the four lower Klamath dams are hydroelectric dams that aren’t operated to manage irrigation flows or for flood control. Zero water from the four reservoirs is diverted to farms or ranches. Therefore, removal of these dams has never posed a risk to irrigated agriculture in the Basin.
The BOR will continue to manage irrigation water through the Link and Keno dams upstream. KRRC is not touching any dam that stores ag water.
So how does dam removal and river restoration benefit farmers? It starts with the fish.
The dams contribute to degradation in water quality, impede fish habitat, contribute to fish diseases, and generally harm anadromous fish, including the endangered Coho Salmon.
When fish species are especially threatened, BOR is required to take certain actions to help protect them — such as flushing extra water down the river. Lots of it.
Poor water quality (characterized by warm summer water temperatures), poor pH, and low dissolved oxygen, negatively impact fish health and breeding success. Warm, stagnant reservoir waters contribute to algae blooms, which further degrade water quality and harm species.
Dams block access to upstream cold-water tributaries which are crucial to fish lifecycles. Finally, dams prevent natural remedies for certain fish diseases.
The fish disease C. Shasta severely harms juvenile salmon. Dense colonies of polychaete worms are found on the bottom of the Klamath River. These tiny worms serve as the intermediate host for C. Shasta. Dams block natural flow patterns and sediment transport which would otherwise scour river bottoms to combat the polychaete worm and C. Shasta.
This past summer, and in many recent years, BOR released water from Upper Klamath Lake into the river as dilution flows to help combat C. Shasta. A U.S. District Court Order requires BOR to implement these dilution flows if disease thresholds are exceeded.
But a recent BOR report (Summary Report of Independent Peer Reviews for Bureau of Reclamation “Measures to Reduce Ceratanova shasta Infection of Klamath River Salmonids: A Guidance Document”) indicates that dam removal will likely reduce or eliminate the biological necessity for spring dilution flows by restoring more natural river flows — which flush spores from the system, reduce polycheate habitat, and reduce C. Shasta “hot spots”— and by reducing the algae blooms in the reservoirs which polychaetes feed on.
Last year, dilution flows utilized about 50,000 acre feet of water, which means that without dilution flows, that much water could have potentially remained in Upper Klamath Lake during the heart of the irrigation season.
If the conditions triggering the court order are addressed by the benefits of dam removal, this could result in a real and measurable benefit to farmers. It isn’t a guarantee, and KRRC is the first one to point out that we have no control over flow decisions for the Klamath River.
However, the possibility of using this 50,000 acre feet of water for crops instead of treating fish disease has grabbed the attention of many in the farm community.
KRRC is continuing its work to prepare for dam removal and we want farmers involved. We believe that river restoration will help communities throughout the Basin and will bolster fish and farms for generations to come.