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Lake

Upper Klamath Lake from which the Klamath Project receives its water from.

The lake level is measured by elevation and this week dipped below 4,138 feet. That’s only the second time since 1996, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. Last year, the low point was 4,139. This April, lake elevation peaked above 4,143 feet, which is actually a major difference given the massive size of Upper Klamath Lake.

Everyone agrees: the Upper Klamath Lake water level is low. According to Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Basin Area Office Manager Jason Phillips, it’s at the lowest level in 18 years.

But there’s disagreement on why that is.

■ Crystal McMahon of Klamath Lake Land Trust considers the region’s water resources to be over-allocated, requiring an above-average water year just to meet the needs. “And agriculture certainly has its share of water,” she said.

■ Dave Cacka, the Klamath Irrigation District Board president and a fourth-generation farmer, said, “there’s a lot of contributing factors to where the lake ends up, not just whether it’s a wet or dry winter. The lake isn’t low because of agriculture; it’s low because of environmental demands.”

■ Considering how water was allocated, Oregon Wild conservation director Steve Pedery said, “The water given to refuges and rivers was the bare minimum — and agriculture saw no reductions. We need to figure out how we can bring demand into balance with supply.”

■ Agriculture did, however, take a reduction in this year’s production. Around 4,410 acres of farmland was idled in 2012, said Klamath Water Users Association executive director Greg Addington. The Water Users Mitigation Program, managed by the Klamath Water and Power Agency (KWAPA), reimburses farmers for not utilizing these lands to save water.

But Hollie Cannon of KWAPA said that idling is a last resort, done only if neither irrigation water nor groundwater pumping is available.

Cacka sees local farmers as being adaptable when it comes to available water supplies, but he argues they’re often left in the dark as to how much will be available. “The rub is we never know soon enough about the water,” he said.

Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Kevin Moore said there are a lot of demands on water.

“And we will need above-average snowfall (to fill the lake),” he said. “Last year was a terrible, dry winter.”

Addington said agriculturalists got through in 2012, even if they didn’t have all the water they wanted.

“The lake getting full is critical,” he said. “But we’re getting used to low levels — we don’t have control over the weather, so we are conservative with our predictions. We want to be doing something rather than just crossing our fingers for snow.”