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Herald and News: Rough Water Year Ending In Klamath Basin

The Klamath Falls Herald and News | Oct. 16, 2013 12:21 a.m. | Updated: Oct. 16, 2013 10:15 a.m. | Klamath Falls, Oregon

Contributed By:

SAMANTHA TIPLER/H&N Staff Reporter

This week marks the end of irrigation season for the Klamath Basin, six months that have been marred by politics and drought.

“It was kind of a crash course on seeing who had what out there,” said Scott White, water master for the Klamath Basin.

Though the irrigation season is finished, the concerns that surfaced over the summer are far from  resolved.

Regulating water

On June 10 the Klamath Tribes and Klamath Project irrigators made a call for water, starting the first water adjudication enforcement in the Basin’s history. With the tribes’ instream water right to time immemorial, water users in the upper Basin were shut off.

Though he hasn’t calculated final numbers, White estimated he visited about 350 people between the upper reaches of the Sprague River and Wood River to the mouths of the Sprague, Wood and Williamson rivers, telling each of them to turn off their irrigation water this summer. The number of actual claims was larger, as some people own more than one claim.

Looking back, White said given the enormity of the workload, telling each person individually took too long and sometimes inadvertently allowed junior users to water longer than senior users.

In the future, White will notify everyone on the same day, likely by mail.

This first year of water adjudication he wanted to make a personal impression.

“I prefer to do it that way but when you have hundreds of people that need to be regulated, it takes a long time and a lot of staff to get through it all,” he said. “This summer wasn’t an ideal year to do it, year one. I think some good came of it. We did get to answer a lot of questions along the way.”

Upper Basin

Linda Long, president of the Modoc Point Irrigation District, was one of the irrigators who received shutoff notices. Hers came June 26.

This summer Long saw cattle shipped off early and watched fields go dry. In some cases, entire crops were lost.

Some irrigators are looking at stock water wells in the future. The Oregon Water Resources Department allowed water to flow for drinking water for animals, but Long said it was still difficult to keep stock water this year.

White said he respected the upper Basin irrigators for making it through the tough year.

“My hat’s off to the upper Basin water users,” he said. “It was not an easy year for them, given the drought and given the mass regulation for the first time. But yet they complied with the orders overwhelmingly. My hat’s really off to them for getting through this year.”

Long said upper Basin irrigators are placing their hopes in a settlement agreement.

“Everybody’s been very patient toward the settlement agreements and meetings,” Long said.

She has been sitting in with the Klamath Basin task force, formed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, and headed by Richard Whitman, Gov. Kitzhaber’s natural resources adviser. The task force met four times over the summer but the last meeting, scheduled for Oct. 10 was postponed due to the federal government shutdown.

“Hopefully we’ll get some satisfaction as irrigators on what might be the future there for them to go forward,” Long said. “Summer’s over but there’s still a lot of questions and answers that can’t be determined because there’s still uncertainty.”

Mark Stuntebeck, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District (KID), said his group learned a lot about coordination with other districts and with the Bureau of Reclamation during this irrigation season. Even though the KID  received water, irrigators had to use it wisely.

“That was a tough water year,” he said. “A lot of our water users and patrons stepped up and attempted to just use what they needed.”

Stuntebeck hopes adjudication can be handled better in the future.

“That brings us into a new world,” he said of the newly enforceable water law. “I think things will change some for us over the next several years, as far as how we administer and comply with our state water right.”

Preparing for next year

As the water drains out of the Klamath Project canals, Stuntebeck is preparing to make some short-term repairs to the KID infrastructure. He and KID would like to replace an aging flume structure in the next few years.

“Which is going to be a big undertaking and a huge cost,” he said.

KID also has established a planning committee looking at the future of the district, especially when it comes to water rights and how the district will comply.

Before the next irrigation season in 2014 White hopes to start a website where irrigators can look up water levels, learn what water rights are being enforced and see who is being regulated. He said many people asked for such a resource this year.

“We don’t have that yet,” he said.

Ranchers in the upper Basin are focused on feeding the cattle they still have through the winter, Long said. Planning for next year is nearly impossible because ranchers and irrigators don’t know what next year will hold.

“We don’t know what to think. We can’t make plans, can’t do leases, can’t do contracts,” she said.

Usually now through the end of December ranchers would set up contracts to lease land or run cattle in the upper Basin.

“People are not going to do it because they can’t be caught next year like they did this year,” Long said. “It’s a tough deal. There’s no answer yet.”

stipler@heraldandnews.com; @TiplerHN

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