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Upper Klamath Lake

Water returning in Februrary to Upper Klamath Lake, pictured here in a 2020 file photo, is among the lowest in 40 years of study by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Though the Bureau of Reclamation has yet to announce an official allocation to the Klamath Project for this summer, hydrologic projections for Upper Klamath Lake are looking worse by the day — and no one is happy with the agency’s draft operations plan.

Irrigation district managers in the Project received a notice from Reclamation last week that diversions of water from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River will be delayed until April 15 at the earliest.

Gene Souza, district manager of Klamath Irrigation District, said that’s roughly two weeks later than he would normally open the A Canal, which delivers water to KID and at least eight other districts in the Project. And because of how dry the canal bed is, it take another three weeks before irrigators would be able to physically receive water deliveries.

The portion of the A Canal that runs through Klamath Falls has filled with a shallow pool of water, thanks to runoff produced by the city. But further outside of town, it’s bone dry. Souza said there are hundreds of miles of canal like this in KID that need to be wet gradually, to keep soils in the ditches from destabilizing. It’s a process that usually takes about three weeks, depending on conditions.

Once the soils become moist and dense, they prevent water from breaching the ditches. Souza estimated that this year, given the delayed start date for diversions, the earliest he could achieve those conditions and begin filling orders for water would be the first week of May.

“Normally, I would be giving deliveries on or around April 15,” Souza said.

During drought years, the Project would historically divert more than 450,000 acre-feet from Upper Klamath Lake to make up for dry soils.

This year, the pseudo-official allocation communicated by Reclamation so far is around 130,000 acre-feet. But Souza expects it to materialize at under 81,000 acre-feet once the Bureau announces its official allocation next month. That’s only slightly more than irrigators got in 2001 and far below what they got last year.

Many irrigators will likely idle land to reduce demand on the Project, for which compensation is available through the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency.

Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Paul Simmons hopes federal legislation passed last year freeing up the $10 million for drought relief in the Basin will bring more assurance to those who choose to idle.

“I’m pretty hopeful that folks will know earlier how much they’re going to be paid,” Simmons said.

At Tulelake Irrigation District, manager Brad Kirby has surmised that while conditions are definitely going to be bad this summer, exactly how bad they’ll be remains to be seen.

“We know that we’re faced with a daunting task and a very precarious situation, but there’s so many variables and so many unknowns,” he said.

Kirby said a greater portion of TID’s water will likely have to come from Upper Klamath Lake through the Lost River Diversion Channel south of Lake Ewauna, since he won’t be able to rely as much on drainage water from KID and other districts further up in the system.

Not being able to reuse water from other districts puts more strain on the lake’s limited resources.

Unlike KID, Kirby said TID hopes to hit the ground running on water deliveries once diversions can begin. They’ll try to clear debris that has collected in the canals as best they can, but the priority will be getting water to their patrons as quickly as possible.

“In short water years, a normal startup goes out the window for us,” Kirby said.

Kirby said he’s not sure how TID will be able to adequately fill Sump 1A on Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, both to satisfy Endangered Species Act lake level requirements and to prevent another disastrous botulism outbreak like the one last summer, which killed tens of thousands of birds on the water-starved refuge.

“Going off of what we’re seeing currently and if it persists, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have issues come fall, in particular with the botulism,” Kirby said.

The delayed start to irrigation also makes it difficult for farmers with high-value crops like garlic, onions, horseradish and lettuce, who need to get their planting and watering done earliest in the season. Those who irrigate pastures and alfalfa will also receive less water than they need to revive their fields, giving them much lower yields and making it harder for them to break even financially.

“We’re talking probably an extinction event for some farmers here who haven’t been able to do what they want to do for a couple years now,” Souza said.

The Klamath Tribes are concerned about a more literal extinction event: that of the C’waam and Koptu (Lost River and shortnose suckers) that traditionally sustained them for millennia and now face a host of habitat problems in Upper Klamath Lake. Research conducted by tribal and government scientists has suggested a link between the lake’s water level and water quality, along with the ability of the fish to access spawning grounds in the spring.

That science has been incorporated into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent biological opinion informing Klamath Project operations and legally prevents Reclamation from allowing Upper Klamath Lake’s surface to dip below 4,142 feet during April and May in two consecutive years.

That happened last year, so the Klamath Tribes filed a notice last month saying they would sue Reclamation if the same thing occurred this spring. Given that the lake is currently a foot lower than it was at this time last year, water users believe that’s part of the reason why the Bureau has delayed the start date for diversions from the lake.

“The C’waam and Koptu are of paramount importance to the Klamath Tribes and our members,” said Tribal Council Member Willa Powless. “They have provided for our spiritual, cultural and material wellbeing for millennia, and yet they are now on the verge of extinction. We will do whatever is necessary to save them.”

In a news release, the Tribes expressed concern over Reclamation’s plan to send approximately 400,000 acre-feet of water down the Klamath River to meet flow requirements at Iron Gate Dam for salmon, whose populations are also on the brink of collapse.

As is true in Upper Klamath Lake, inflows to the river between Keno and Iron Gate Dams have been significantly lower than last year, so even more water from the Upper Basin is needed to meet those requirements.

Concerned about Upper Klamath Lake’s levels dipping below ESA minimums during sucker spawning season in April and May, the Tribes submitted comments to Reclamation suggesting the agency “borrow” water from PacifiCorp’s hydroelectric reservoir behind Iron Gate Dam to supplement river flows. That water would then be replenished later in the summer with releases from Upper Klamath Lake after spawning season concludes.

“We are angered and saddened that Reclamation’s management of the Klamath Project has brought us to a place where the needs of the C’waam and Koptu are pitted directly against those of the salmon and against our neighbors in the irrigation community,” said Tribal Chairman Don Gentry.

The Tribes called on the Biden Administration and newly confirmed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to work with stakeholders throughout the Klamath Basin to help come up with solutions to the water crisis.

“The fact that we find ourselves yet again in a situation where there is not enough water for C’waam, Koptu, nepuy and irrigation needs underscores the need for a comprehensive solution to move the Klamath Basin to a more sustainable footing so that we are not continually lurching from crisis to crisis,” said Brad Parrish, water rights specialist for the Tribes.

As the West’s decades-long megadrought steadily decreases the amount of water available in an already over-allocated basin, it’s clear that no one is winning. Reclamation will release their official operations plan for the Klamath Project sometime in early April following that month’s snowpack report and streamflow forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The specifics have yet to be nailed down, but most stakeholders are preparing for 2020’s title of the second-worst water year in Basin history to be quickly usurped by 2021.

“Every year I think we’ve dealt with as much as we’re going to deal with, then we’re faced with yet another short water year with so many additional issues,” Kirby said.