A canal

The A Canal diverts water from Upper Klamath Lake into irrigation districts in the Klamath Project, including Klamath Irrigation District.

With hydrologic conditions in the Klamath Basin on track to be worse than they were last year, the Klamath County Commissioners declared a drought for the Klamath Basin on Tuesday.

The wintry mix of precipitation that rolled into the basin as the declaration was made was a dose of cruel irony.

While local precipitation has been slightly higher this winter than last, the extra snow hasn’t been enough to make up for exceedingly dry soils left over from water year 2020, which will soak up a significant portion of the snow as it melts.

Inflow forecasts to Upper Klamath Lake are some of the lowest in decades, with 430,000 acre-feet of water expected to enter the lake between March and September at a 50% confidence level from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s March 1 basin outlook report. That’s 67% of Upper Klamath Lake’s average streamflow for that time period.

Approximately 130,000 acre-feet are expected to be allocated from Upper Klamath Lake to the Klamath Project for this growing season, a number even lower than last year and only enough to satisfy about a third of project demand.

According to water monitoring data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Upper Klamath Lake’s surface is currently more than a foot of water lower than it was at this time last year, which will make it extremely difficult for the Bureau of Reclamation to satisfy lake level requirements outlined in the Endangered Species Act, let alone provide water to the Project.

Commissioners will send the drought declaration letter to the Oregon Water Resources Department and Oregon Office of Emergency Management, requesting that Governor Kate Brown declare a drought at the state level with the federal government.

That will allow water users in the basin to apply for drought relief programs through federal and state agencies.

“It opens the door on relief programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as OWRD,” said Mark Johnson, deputy director of Klamath Water Users Association.

Irrigators would be able to exercise ground water rights in lieu of surface water rights to still be able to irrigate crops or livestock.

Johnson said KWUA is also working on securing additional funding for the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, which pays irrigators to idle some land and reduce demand for water in Upper Klamath Lake. Congress passed legislation last October that clarified what those funds could be used for, effectively freeing up the $10 million pot of money set aside for the Basin several years prior.

Johnson said things are looking especially bad for Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, which rely on Project water deliveries to maintain habitat for millions of birds a year on the Pacific flyway. Last year, a lack of water deliveries to those wetlands during the hottest part of the year played a part in the refuges’ worst avian botulism outbreaks in decades. Johnson said there’s not much the Project can do to satisfy refuge water needs when so little water is going to farms to begin with.

“At this point it’s looking pretty bleak for refuges, and us as well,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the best-case scenario for the next couple months would be multiple serious storms and colder-than-normal temperatures. Ideally, storms would deliver snow to the mountains and rain to the basin, which could give irrigators a head start by building up soil moisture before they plant crops.

With low to moderate La Nina conditions still present in the Pacific Ocean, a spring like that isn’t out of the question. But Johnson said basin irrigators are nonetheless preparing for two dismal water years in a row.