At the request of Klamath County Commissioners, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has declared drought in the Klamath River Basin. The declaration is intended to spur a federal drought declaration for the Oregon portion of the Basin. That would make Upper Klamath Basin irrigators eligible for federal drought payments. But is the Upper Klamath River Basin really in drought?
According to the official US multi-agency Drought Monitor, most of the Upper Basin is “abnormally dry” but not yet in drought. The Monitor indicates that drought has so far only come to the most eastern portion of the Upper Klamath River Basin - the Lost River Sub-basin. In spite of predicted low run-off in the Shasta and Scott Sub-basins, there has as yet been no movement to declare drought in the lower, California portion of the Basin.
Is the Klamath drought real?
There have been times when we've had “bureaucratic drought” in the Klamath River Basin...particularly in the period since the KBRA Water Deal was signed. Refuges have been dewatered even when run-off has been near average and Klamath River flows have been cut far below levels called for in the 2010 Coho Biological Opinion.
This time, however, the concern about summer/fall water supply and streamflow appears to be well founded. The Natural Resource Conservation Service projects Klamath River basin streamflows will be 50 to 69% of “average” this summer and fall. For comparison, last year flows were projected at 70 to 89% of the long term average.
Sometimes a wet spring mitigates the impact to growers resulting from lower winter precipitation by increasing soil moisture, thus reducing the need for irrigation. This year, however, soil moisture is way down from average – particularly in the Lost River Basin where most of Klamath Irrigation Project water use occurs.
So what is really going on? Why does the NRCS not find drought in the Basin even as forecasted streamflows and soil moisture indicate drought?