Klamath Water Woes: Drought Conditions Pit Farmers Against Fish Again

The Klamath Basin and the water that flows out of it from Oregon to California have been a point of contention between environmentalists and farmers over the past century. Dam removal now seems imminent, yet the water woes have not ended for the region. Facing drought conditions, Klamath Lake is currently 12 inches below its lowest level recorded in 1992.

Water woes return to the Klamath Region
Water woes return to the Klamath Region / Photo by kun0me

The Klamath River originates in Upper Klamath Lake, the largest lake in Oregon.  This once mighty river flows 263 miles to the Pacific Ocean in Klamath, California.  It is one of the three largest salmon supporting rivers on the West Coast, and it has been the source of much controversy.  In 2001, irrigation supplies to farmers were cut off to protect sucker fish in the basin and coho in the river.  In 2002, a massive fish kill occurred with political ties to former Republican Vice President Cheney.  One thing people in the Klamath’s region know is that water is everything.

Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley have appealed to the federal government for assistance for farmers facing a drought of  “historic magnitude”.  Irrigation usually begins to flow April 1, and farmers are worried as the planting season approaches.  Wyden and Merkley asked the Departments of Commerce, Interior, and Agriculture to:

  • Providing funds to purchase upstream water rights voluntarily offered;
  • Adjusting surface water management within parameters of the law and sound science;
  • Releasing emergency funds for land idling through water banks or other programs;
  • Activating emergency drought wells or other means of accessing groundwater; and
  • Establishing drought assistance for all farmers regardless of crop type.

Also in an effort to help farmers, Oregon governor Kulongoski will make a state declaration of drought for the Klamath region next week. Even with federal and state aid, the farmers’ needs cannot be met.  The Mercury News reports:

If there is one thing I believe now, we will not be able to provide all the water ranchers and farmers need in the basin,” Kulongoski told reporters after listening to farmers, agricultural businessmen and the Klamath Tribes about the economic hardships they face without irrigation.

State and federal drought declarations will make emergency wells available, and some aid programs, but not enough to cover farmers for their losses, Kulongoski said.

Farmers say without adequate water, they need compensation of about $1,000 per acre.  They may feel entitled after the California salmon fishing industry has received federal compensation over water woes in the region.  Ironically, northern California is experiencing a winter with precipitation slightly above normal, but this doesn’t help Oregon’s arid Klamath Basin  One thing on everyone’s mind is the preservation of the month old Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement waiting Congressional approval.  Kulongoski has stated, “I absolutely believe that if this plan had been in place, let’s say four years ago and we actually had it in operation now, we would be in a much better position now.”

Written by Jennifer Lance

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