Farmers in the Klamath Basin on the Oregon-California border — whose water was shut off last season by federal agencies scrambling to protect endangered fish — got some good news this winter.
After a snowy and rainy winter, Bureau of Reclamation officials announced in late February that they think they can deliver 100% of the Basin's irrigation needs this season.
Earlier, a subcommittee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released an interim report criticizing the opinions that led to last year's decision to cut off irrigation water.
Last spring, Bureau of Reclamation biologists decided to retain enough water above the irrigation canals to keep lake levels high in endangered sucker habitat. They also agreed to meet the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) demand to release enough water into the Klamath River to ensure adequate flows for threatened salmon. That left no water for basin farmers. About 200,000 farmland acres, half of which was planted to hay and irrigated pasture, dried up.
In February, the NAS subcommittee concluded in its interim report that “there is presently no sound scientific basis for recommending an operating regime for the Klamath Project that seeks to ensure lake levels higher on average than those occurring between 1990 and 2000.”
The review committee also determined that augmenting flows in the Klamath River does little to improve salmon habitat. In fact, water released from reservoirs to increase summer flows could be so warm that it actually might kill the fish it's intended to save.
On the other hand, the report criticized proposals that could decrease lake levels and in-stream flows below the 10-year average.
After nearly a year of bad news, farmers greeted the NAS report with a collective sigh of relief. But hay grower Steve Kandra, Merrill, OR, says he and his neighbors aren't out of the woods yet.
“We're a little more optimistic because we have people in the administration pulling for us instead of folks who are neutral or against us,” Kandra says. “But if you're really pragmatic about it, the same set of rules applies this year that did last year. We don't have new biological opinions, just the report. And the boys who created last summer's situation are still there, that ideology's still there — and they play hardball.”
Reclamation and NMFS leaders skipped their deadline to comment on the review. Local Indian tribes have contested the committee's findings. And Kandra expects more backlash from environmental groups while the NAS committee prepares its final report, due in about a year.
In the fields of the Klamath Basin, plenty of questions remain about the true costs of last year's crisis. Many farms are restructuring their debt. Operating credit is hard to secure — Kandra says that one major Basin lender has even stopped offering production loans. And it will be months before farmers know how well the alfalfa weathered last year's withering summer.