Feds Offer Aid to Make Up for Water Supply Shortage in Pacific Northwest

A plan to reduce water allocated to farmers, ranchers and flows for helping endangered fish in the Pacific Northwest has left both the agricultural industry and conservationists unsatisfied.

In this March 3, 2020, file photo, the Klamath River is seen flowing across northern California from atop Cade Mountain in the Klamath National Forest. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

(CN) — The federal government will offer millions of dollars in aid to farmers, ranchers and Native American tribes to help offset the impact of a severe drought on water earmarked for irrigating cropland and helping endangered fish on the California-Oregon border.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Wednesday that it will provide $15 million in aid to farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin, and $3 million to help Native American tribes with environmental work, including efforts to protect endangered sucker fish in Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake.

Famers and ranchers will receive 33,000 acre feet of water from the Klamath Project this year, less than 10% of the average 350,000 acre feet of water that is usually made available. The supply shortage was brought on by a severe drought that has reduced the Klamath Basin snowpack to 72% of normal and precipitation to 67% of normal.

Ben Duval, a farmer from Tulelake, California, and president of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farmers and ranchers that rely on the irrigation water, said the bureau’s plan for water allocations this year could devastate the economies of rural communities in the Klamath Basin.

“It’s going to have huge economic impacts to our community,” Duval said in a phone interview. “It has the potential to put family farms out of business.”

Agricultural workers were already in need of more water than usual this year because the soil is extremely dry due to the recent drought, Duval added.

The Tulelake farmer said the Bureau’s plan to provide $15 million in aid will likely help some farmers and ranchers stay afloat and make mortgage payments. But it won’t make up for all the money and jobs that will be lost due to a lack of water to grow crops, he said.

“It’s not going to go very far in providing the same amount of economic stimulation to the community as a whole,” he said.

Duval partially blamed this year’s low water allocation on what he calls “single species management,” referring to requirements that flows be prioritized to maintain water levels in the Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon’s largest freshwater body, to help save endangered suckerfish. Flows are also prioritized for the Klamath River to help endangered coho salmon.

Native American tribes in the area have gone to court repeatedly to force the federal government to prioritize water for endangered species. In 2017, U.S. District Judge William Orrick ordered the Bureau to redirect water previously earmarked for agriculture to help stop a salmon die-off on the Klamath River caused by a deadly parasite. Last year, Orrick rejected a separate attempt to make the government reallocate water to help endangered Lost River suckers and shortnose suckers in the Upper Klamath Lake.

On Tuesday, one of those tribes went to court again. The Klamath Tribes sued the bureau in U.S. District Court in Medford, Oregon, arguing it should maintain a minimum water level of 4,142 feet in the Upper Klamath Lake this summer to ensure the survival of threatened sucker fish. Known as C’waam and Koptu to the Klamath Tribes, the Lost River and shortnose suckers have played a “central role in the tribes’ culture and spiritual practices” for millennia, according to the lawsuit.

The water level demanded by the tribes is four feet higher than the minimum proposed by the bureau in a temporary operations plan released Wednesday. The bureau says a 4,138-foot minimum complies with requirements for sucker fish outlined in biological opinions issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“This water year is unlike anything the Project has ever seen,” the bureau’s deputy commissioner Camille Touton said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to monitor the hydrology and look for opportunities for operational flexibility, provide assistance to Project water users and the Tribes, and keep an open dialogue with our stakeholders, the states, and across the federal government to get through this water year together.”

The bureau has committed $3 million in aid to Klamath Basin tribes for “ecosystem activities,” but a Klamath Tribes official complained last week that the federal government is relying on a “single-year band-aid” approach instead of investing in long-term solutions to persistent drought conditions in the American West.

“This isn’t a one year crisis,” Tribal Council Treasurer Brandi Hatcher said in a statement last week. “Reclamation’s longstanding management of the Project, a century of agricultural impacts on critical tribal treaty resources, and the impact of climate change have rendered the status quo in the Basin today totally unsustainable. Any new funds coming into the Basin to address the impacts of this year’s all-too-predictable water shortage must be a down payment on moving the Basin — and particularly the Klamath Project — to a more viable footing going forward.”

The lawsuit filed by the Klamath Tribes in Oregon Tuesday seeks a court order requiring the bureau to ensure the Upper Klamath Lake’s elevation does not drop below 1,143.3 feet.  

Klamath Tribal Council Chairman Don Gentry did not immediately return a voice message requesting comment Wednesday.

The Klamath Project encompasses a network of dams, tunnels and irrigation ditches first constructed in 1906 that funnel water from lakes and marshlands to ranches, farms and wildlife refuges. The project provides irrigation water for 240,000 acres of agricultural land in the Klamath Basin.

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