Science & Environment

In the Klamath Basin, pretty much everybody’s feeling the pain

By Holly Dillemuth, Liam Moriarty (Jefferson Public Radio)
May 16, 2021 4:05 p.m.

It’s been an epically bad week for everyone who relies on water from the Klamath.

On Wednesday, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the 114-year-old Klamath water project, announced that for the first time ever, the “A” canal will be closed for the season – meaning no water will be drawn from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigators in the federally-managed Klamath Project.


Reclamation’s initial operations plan allocation for the Klamath Project projected 33,000 acre-feet would be available for more than 150,000 acres of farmland, a fraction of what irrigators would use in a typical year. But Wednesday the Bureau announced that the deepening drought and worsening hydrologic conditions in the Basin would no longer allow diverting even that much water from the lake.

Reclamation cited the need to maintain a minimal level in the lake to protect two endangered species of sucker fish which are of deep importance to the Klamath Tribes.

The Bureau also said in a statement it expects that 33,000 acre feet originally allocated to farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Project to be lost to “unauthorized diversions at private facilities along the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake” – essentially, farmers irrigating land outside of a legal water right.

The Klamath Drainage District has diverted 4,500 acre feet of water, with a supplementary water right. But some believe it doesn’t hold up against federal regulation.

A parasitic infection is expected to kill nearly all of juvenile salmon on the Klamath River this spring. The photo features fish that are presumed to have died from infection.

A parasitic infection is expected to kill nearly all of juvenile salmon on the Klamath River this spring. The photo features fish that are presumed to have died from infection.

Yurok Tribe

Scott White, general manager of KDD, defends the usage of water for his growers. White has a background as a watermaster for Oregon Water Resources Department and as a former executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. He claims the water usage is backed by a state supplementary water right acquired by the district in 1977.

“When Project supply is not available, then this supplemental water right kicks in,” White said.

White says the Bureau of Reclamation has acknowledged this water right in the past and even brought it to the district’s attention when Project supply isn’t available. A letter between former area manager Sue Fry and former KDD manager Justin Throne in 2010 backs that up.

Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents irrigators on the federally-managed Klamath Project, isn’t so sure that Reclamation has supported the diversion of the water by KDD. But he said it’s been “tolerated” by Reclamation up until now.

Still, DuVal said, that water is being taken away from the rest of the Project, and it’s taking away options and the flexibility for Project users with it.

“So, it’s definitely hurting the rest of the Project, even though I think we all understand where they’re coming from and why they’re doing it,” DuVal said. “Every business in the Basin and our wildlife refuges are really, really suffering and that’s not a balanced way of looking at things.”

Further downstream, the bad news continues.

The Yurok tribe reported Thursday that juvenile Coho salmon are dying off from a parasite in the Klamath River. Last week, tribal officials said, 97% of the fish sampled along one key stretch of the river tested positive for a deadly parasite called C. shasta.

Craig Tucker, natural resources policy consultant for the neighboring Karuk tribe, said lack of water in the river is fostering conditions that allow the parasite to spread unchecked.

“This year, we did not get a flushing flow in the winter and the Bureau is unwilling to provide a dilution flow right now so now the disease rates are at 97%,” Tucker said.

Reclamation’s initial operations plan allocation for the Klamath also included a possible surface flushing flow in the Klamath River to benefit out-migrating salmon.

The effects of nearly all the baby salmon in the river being killed off are likely to be far-reaching, and extend up and down the Oregon and California coastlines.

“We are wiping out an entire year class of not only (Endangered Species Act) listed coho but Chinook salmon, which are really the workhorse of the salmon fishery,” Tucker said.


That’s the road to extinction, said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which represents small and medium-sized commercial fishing operations.

“We’re dealing with three simultaneous crises — Upper Basin, Middle Basin, and lower Basin and coast,” Spain told Jefferson Public Radio.

“And the coastal problem is that we’ve got a complete closure from the California salmon fishery because of weak salmon stocks coming back to the Klamath,” he added.

Ocean fisheries use what’s known as a “weak stock” management, where the weakest stock is the one that limits all other fisheries.

The fisheries can’t be allowed to get below a certain number of returning fish, or they are unable to replace a given generation of fish. As it has been in several years past, Klamath is providing the weakest stock of fish.

The main reason there are not as many adult fish coming back is that three years ago – this salmon species has a three-year life cycle — the fish were moving out into the world as juveniles and they hit a hot spot of c. shasta infection in the Klamath River. Massive infection rates of c. Shasta led to high mortality rates.

“We lost them in the Klamath primarily because of hot weather, hot water temperatures, lower flows, and inability to do the flushing flow that we really need,” Spain said. “That’s one of the very few tools that we have to get them out in time.”

The impact will run north and south along the Oregon and California coasts, in what’s known as the Klamath Management Zone. That zone extends as far south as Fort Bragg and as far north as Florence.

That whole area on that California side is closed completely, Spain said, and there are so many restrictions to the Oregon coastal side, he said, it might as well be closed.

“We are going to be asking the federal government for help,” Spain added. “Exactly how it will go, we don’t know. We don’t know what this season’s going to look like, but so far it’s dim.”

The Karuk Tribe’s Craig Tucker is not surprised by another drought in the region and believes a change is needed in agricultural approaches.

“This is 21st century global climate change hydrology,” Tucker said. “This is what the climatologists told us to expect is extreme dryness, followed by extreme wetness, and less snow. “We can’t use 20th century water plans to deal with 21st century climate,” he added.

The Klamath Water Users Association’s Ben DuVal acknowledges that lower snow levels in general and changing hydrology has certainly impacted the Project.

“We’re getting less winter snow pack and more spring run-off after it warms up,” he said.

“That’s something that, regardless of whether or not it’s due to climate change …. We need to manage the reservoirs that we have. We need flexibility in how to manage that.”

DuVal, a Tulelake farmer himself, emphasized that farmers are not new to navigating drought and sharing resources.

“We did that by balancing all the needs,” he said. “Farms cut back, the river gave up some downstream flows, the lake was used to its most effective levels; everyone shared, everyone got through.”

DuVal believes the approach currently being taken by Reclamation is imbalanced for farmers and the community as a whole, including tribes. He says he supports looking into solutions, such as expanding storage so there is for more water to go around.

“We need to possibly change our management style on the river and in Upper Klamath Lake in order to address the changes that we’re seeing,” DuVal said.

Klamath Project irrigators can be compensated for their losses and the process could start next month.

Reclamation has committed to offering a total $15 million in immediate aid to Project water users, to be delivered through the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency. An additional $3 million will be available through Reclamation and other departments of the Interior.

But government money to try to ease the pain of at least some of the people who stand to lose by the growing shortage of water in the Klamath Basin will only go so far. The climate trends are all headed in the direction of deeper and more frequent drought, less snowpack and less water in the system. And there are few plausible plans for somehow getting the one thing everyone who depends on the Basin needs; a reliable, adequate supply of water.


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