Epic drought means water crisis on Oregon-California border
Hundreds of farmers who rely on a massive irrigation project that spans the Oregon-California border learned Wednesday they will get a tiny fraction of the water they need amid the worst drought in decades, as federal regulators attempt to balance the needs of agriculture against federally threatened and endangered fish species that are central to the heritage of several tribes.
Oregon’s governor said the prolonged drought in the region has the “full attention of our offices,” and she is working with congressional delegates, the White House and federal agencies to find relief for those affected.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation briefed irrigators, tribes and environmental groups early Wednesday after delaying the decision a month. The federally owned irrigation project will draw 33,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake, which farmers said was roughly 8% of what they need in such a dry year. Water deliveries will also start June 1, two months later than usual, for the 1,400 irrigators who farm the 225,000 acres.
“The simple fact is it just hasn’t rained or snowed this year. We all know how dry our fields are, and the rest of the watersheds are in the same boat. ... There is no easy way to say this,” Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, told several dozen irrigators who gathered in Klamath Falls on Wednesday morning to hear the news.
“We all know what this is going to mean to our farms, our families and our community as a whole. For some of us, it may mean we’re not in business anymore next year.”
Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement that Oregon water regulators are reviewing a plan to allow irrigators to pump more than twice as much groundwater per acre for their crops as allowed last year when drought reduced water supplies to a lesser extent.
“My message to the people of the Klamath Basin today is this: You are not alone,” said Brown, who has also declared a drought emergency in the region.
The Bureau of Reclamation set aside $15 million in immediate aid for irrigators, and irrigation districts at Wednesday's meeting said they could expect some additional water from two other reservoirs and groundwater wells. Another $10 million will be available for drought assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, following the release of a water operations plan for the Klamath Reclamation Project, according to a news release from Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, with U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz.
The seasonal allocations are the most dramatic development in the region since irrigation water was all but cut off to hundreds of farmers in 2001 amid another severe drought — the first time the interests of farmers took a backseat to those of fish and tribes.
The crisis made the rural farming region hundreds of miles from any major city a national political flashpoint and became a touchstone for Republicans who used the crisis to take aim at the Endangered Species Act, with one GOP lawmaker calling the irrigation shutoff a “poster child” for why changes were needed. A “bucket brigade” protest attracted 15,000 people who scooped water from the Klamath River and passed it, hand over hand, to a parched irrigation canal.
“My hope is we can all stick together and look to help each other where we can,” said DuVal, who added that his biggest fear is "outsiders coming in and using what we do here and using our crisis as a soapbox for them."
The Yurok Tribe, one of the tribes affected by the water decision, said that even with the slashes to farmers' water, they were facing a “catastrophic loss” of salmon this year.
“The Yurok Tribe is suffering significant economic damage on top of the extreme cultural and social impacts of failing fish runs," said tribal Vice Chairman Frankie Myers.
Jay Weiner, an attorney for the Klamath Tribes, said the tribe was pursuing legal action over water releases that will impact fish and accused the federal government of precipitating the crisis by mismanaging water in the basin for decades.
“What we’re seeing with climate change increasingly — year after year after year — is that there is not enough water to go around. This crisis should not come as a surprise to anyone,” he said. “We have over-drafted our account, essentially, and now we have to deal with the consequences.”