Science & Environment

Bureau of Reclamation shuts down primary canal for Klamath Project irrigators amid worsening drought

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB) and Liam Moriarty (Jefferson Public Radio)
Bend, Ore. May 13, 2021 1:06 a.m.

The decision will leave Klamath Project irrigators with no water for the season as this year’s historic drought deepens.

Irrigation infrastructure on the Klamath Project.

This 2017 file photo shows irrigation infrastructure on the Klamath Project.

Jes Burns, OPB/Earthfix / OPB/EarthFix

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Wednesday that it would close the primary canal serving Klamath Project irrigators for the season, leaving them with no water this summer.


Deepening drought conditions mean a tentative plan for water distribution announced last month is scrapped. The remaining water in Upper Klamath Lake will be kept there to try to preserve two endangered fish species critical to the Klamath Tribes.

The canal, known as “A Canal,” diverts water from Upper Klamath Lake to irrigators in Klamath County in Oregon as well as Siskiyou and Modoc counties across the border in California. The federal agency says worsening drought in the region has forced their decision.

“This year’s drought conditions are bringing unprecedented hardship to the communities of the Klamath Basin,” the bureau’s deputy commissioner, Camille Calimlim Touton, said in a press release.

“We have closely monitored the water conditions in the area and the unfortunate deterioration of the forecasted hydrology,” she said. “This has resulted in the historic consequence of not being able to operate a majority of the Klamath Project this year.”


The announcement has made a historically bad year even worse for farmers in the region. The Klamath Water Users Association says this is the first year since the A Canal opened in 1907 that it will not deliver water to irrigators.

The association, which represents farmers and ranchers in the region, blasted the bureau’s decision.

“Taking water from Project irrigators for [Endangered Species Act] species is a failed experiment that has produced no benefit for the species,” Klamath Water Users Association President Ben DuVal said in a statement.

The bureau also canceled plans for a “surface flushing flow,” which is intended to mitigate disease to help endangered salmon runs on the Klamath River.

Diverting water for irrigation and the flushing flow would have come at the expense of endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker fish, known as C’waam and Koptu in the Klamath language, that live in the lake. The fish are central to the tribes’ way of life and were once a staple in the Klamath people’s diet.

The Klamath Tribes issued a statement saying the bureau “made the only decision reasonably available to it.”

“The fact that neither [Klamath] Project irrigators, nor C’waam and Koptu, nor salmon in the Klamath River will have access to sufficient water to satisfy their needs this year underscores how desperately the Klamath Basin needs to adapt to a more sustainable future,” the statement read.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has declared drought emergencies in Klamath, Lake and Jackson counties. The latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows the region experiencing extreme and, in some areas, exceptional drought.

All of Oregon is abnormally dry or worse.