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Commentaries and editorials

Balanced Plan Proposed for Klamath Basin

by Michael Wade
Capital Press - February 15, 2002

Anyone who keeps tack of important water issues is well aware of the Klamath Basin and the problems encountered during last year's irrigation season. Drought led the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to cut off water supplies to farmers to provide more water for endangered sucker fish and coho salmon. The communities that depend on the regions's agricluture industry were left high and dry. Unemployment and bankruptcy soared while land values plummeted.

BuRec has a legal obligation to provide water to contractors in the Klamath Basin Project area. The Endangered Species Act says BuRec also has an obligation to prevent damage to threatened or endangered species.

Therein lies the rub. With only so much water to go around, how do you adequately provide for the needs of farmers and the envrionment? BuRec thinks it has an answer.

The effects on fish occur for a variety of reasons. Water diversions create paths for fish that take them away from spawning grounds and natural stream flows. Diversions also reduce the amount of water in the Klamath River, which, according to disputed scientific studies cited in the plan, limits the river's carrying capacity, or ability to support fish. Low lake levels allegedly hinder the ability of young fish to grow and migrate downstream.

BuRec recently released its draft biological assessment of the effects of proposed actions for Klamath Project operations. The 103-age document carefully outlines the problems facing water storage and BuRec's delivery options, and discusses a number of solutions. It's a bold attempt to satisfy laws protecting agricultural water users and the environment.

What's exciting about this document is that it outlines administrative and voluntary activities to meets the needs of all users. Like the CalFed Record of Decision, it offers something for everyone, but not everything for any interest group. There have already been objections to the plan, stating that it favors farmers, but that's expected. Although media reports indicate a bias toward agriculture, similar projections were made early last year and agriculture ended up without water. Because BuRec halted water deliveries last year to protect endangered species, there are bound to be skeptics of a plan that tries to meet water needs more fairly.

Some of the proposals in the plan include canal screening to protect suckers of all ages and a multiyear plan to screen other facilities, such as Gerber Reservoir, Miller Creek, Tule Lake, and diversions at Lost River and the Klamath River. A new passage facility at Link River Dam would allow suckers to move into areas of preferred habitat or to spawning areas in or above Upper Klamath Lake.

For coho, increasing the carrying capacity of rivers and streams will increase the population, according to scientific reports cited in the plan. This would be accomplished by managing the discharge volume at Iron Gate Dam to follow natural discharges. Discharge flow should be 62 percent to 97 percent of natural flow in above average water years and 66 percent to 100 percent in critically dry years.

The great flexibility of the plan involves what are called Potential Actions to Assist With Conservation and/or Recovery of Species. These actions include voluntary activities water users could participate in that would improve BuRec's flexibility in managing water operations. Because there's a legal responsiblity to provide water to farms, BuRec propose a voluntary compensated irrigation-reduction program.

By agreeing to fallow some land, those with rights to Klamath project water would be paid for the water they don't use, freeing it up for the environment or other users. The document provide an example of a program that idles 8,000 to 26,000 acres per year, depending on water conditions.

This example is used to demonstrate the amount of agricultural water that could be used for other purposes. The intent of the demand-reduction program would be continuing to operate a viable irrigation project while not jeopardizing the continued existence of listed species.

A water leasing and banking program would allow BuRec to lease water to water users to make water available for Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River downstream. In addition, a winter irrigation program would use spills (water that can't be stored and that exceeds downstream flow requirements) to replenish soil moisture. Winter irrigation can reduce early season irrigation demand. This would reduce shortages to irrigation in the early growing season when lake level requirements constrain water deliveries to ag.

There are also voluntary measures for environmental benefits. Twenty-four actions are proposed to improve habitat for suckers and coho. The list includes fish-passage and oxygenation projects, ecosystem and wetlands restoration and screened diversions. These actions could be the best new method for water management in the Klamath Basin.

Uncertainty continues about the science used in the 2001 biological opinion. The conclusions that led to the water cut-off need to be carefully peer reviewed before drastic actions are taken to reduce water deliveries.

There will be critics and naysayers, but the world is moving forward in water supply and management. It's time to embrace cooperative efforts intended to meet the needs of water users and prevent restrictions that harm one group in favor of another.

by Michael Wade is executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. The organization works to increase public awareness of agriculture's use of water and to provide a common voice for agricultural water users.
Balanced Plan Proposed for Klamath Basin
Capital Press - February 15, 2002

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