Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Klamath Water Woes – Drought or the new normal?

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?

The new normal 

The key to an answer can be found by comparing precipitation with snowpack. The data is collected throughout the West by the NRCS. Below are NRCS maps displaying year-to-date April 1 snowpack and April 30 precipitation levels across the west by river basin as a percentage of the long term average.
2013 Year-to-date snowpack (above) and precipitation (below)

According to the NRCS, snowpack in the Klamath River basin ranges from 70 to 89% of average in the Oregon Cascades to less than 25% of average in the Lost River Sub-basin. Snowpack in the Shasta and Scott River Sub-basins is 25-to 49% of average. Basin-wide, year-to-date snowpack is 32% of average while year-to-date precipitation is 88% of average.

This pattern – precipitation within the normal range but abnormally low snowpack – is what climate scientists have been telling us for a while now we can expect in the Northwest and Northern California as a result of climate change. In the Klamath River Basin it appears that the predicted future is now!

A recurring crisis

If the pattern of near average precipitation and very low snowpack is indeed the new normal, we can expect conflict over water to intensify. Unless irrigation and municipal water deliveries are cut, river flows in the future will likely be inadequate to maintain existing fisheries; instead of recovery we may see more species become endangered and some go extinct. If that happens, all the millions of dollars which have been and continue to be spent on salmon restoration will have been wasted. No amount of “restoration” can mitigate for inadequate streamflow.

The proper response to this situation should be a determined concentration on reducing irrigation demand. Irrigation currently consumes between 70 and 90% of the water diverted from rivers and streams across the west; the Klamath is no exception. With western water supply heavily dependent on snowpack and agriculture the #1 water consumer, reducing agricultural water demand is essential if we are going to have any hope of providing the river and stream flows needed to recover salmon. Water conservation alone can not reduce irrigation demand sufficiently; we need to reduce irrigated acreage if we are going to sustain fisheries and the aquatic ecosystems on which those fisheries depend.

That is not, however, the approach being taken in the Klamath River Basin. While aspects of the KBRA which benefit federal irrigation interests have been front-loaded and generously funded, there still is no program operating in the Basin to reduce irrigation demand by purchase and retirement of water rights and contracts.

Worse yet, if Congress endorses the KBRA, purchase and retirement of water rights and contracts would be prohibited within over 200,000 irrigated acres within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project. That would make 40% of the total irrigated acres in the entire Klamath River Basin off-limits to the most effective means of reducing water demand. 

Fish and wildlife take the hit 

This spring the Bureau of Reclamation ordered the Klamath Refuges to release water to the Klamath River so that more water could be retained in Upper Klamath Lake. Consequently, some of the refuges permanent marshes are once again being dewatered. As it has every year since the KBRA was signed, Reclamation also cut Klamath River flows this year to levels significantly below those called for in the 2010 Coho Biological Opinion. Under the current Biological Opinion, April flows below Iron Gate Dam should be a minimum of 1325 cubic feel per (cfs) second; this year Reclamation only provided 1150 cfs during April.

Cuts to springtime river flows and low natural (“unimpaired”) runoff are certain to have a devastating impact on young salmon migrating from natal streams to the Pacific Ocean. Low flows mean water quality will be terrible, fish disease levels epidemic and the loss of young salmon correspondingly high. More fish will also be stranded as growers in the Scott Valley and elsewhere turn on irrigation ditches dewatering the stream sections below. Based on past experience, it is highly likely that most of the progeny resulting from the largest spawning run in recent history will be lost before the young salmon can reach the Pacific Ocean. That is part of the reason a single good salmon run does not indicate that Klamath Salmon are on the road to recovery.

Dewatered Etna Creek: Each year thousands of young salmon die
when irrigation diversions dewater streams in the Scott Valley 

This year the Bureau of Reclamation had to cut river flows and take water from the Refuges in order to comply with the demand of federal irrigation interests to fill Upper Klamath Lake as early in the year as possible. Upper Klamath Lake is the main water supply for the Klamath Irrigation Project. Filling the lake early provides maximum irrigation delivery. Nevertheless, this year the start of irrigation was delayed due to low inflow to Upper Klamath Lake. Some federal irrigators may also sign up and receive a federal payment for not irrigating; a few irrigators with very low contract priority (the so-called “C” contractors) may not get water from the Bureau of Reclamation at all this year. But most irrigators within the federal Klamath Project will once again get all the irrigation water they desire.

The bulk of impacts resulting from low snowpack leading to reduced stream flow will be felt in the Klamath River and on the Klamath Refuges. Based on 3 years of Klamath River Basin water management since the KBRA Water Deal was signed, that appears to also be “the new normal” under the KBRA.

Irrigation First management

Meanwhile the Bureau of Reclamation is attempting to lock in the water management priorities and procedures which it has implemented since soon after the KBRA was signed. The agency claims the Variable Flow Operating Procedure will deliver “ greater certainty” for federal irrigation interests:
           "A key benefit of the 2013 water management approach is greater certainty on the amount of water that will be available for the Upper Klamath Lake, the Klamath River and the Klamath Project. This water management approach will also improve flow timing and provide increased flow variability in the Klamath River and provide for elevations in Upper Klamath Lake that are more reflective of variations in natural inflows, thereby providing benefits to federally listed coho salmon and Lost River and Shortnose suckers throughout the year.”

“Increases in flow variability” and “variations in natural inflows” are euphemisms for less water and corresponding greater uncertainty for aquatic ecosystems - including endangered species. Rather than mimicking natural flow variability, Reclamation is imposing flow variations dictated by the primary objective of irrigation interests – maximizing irrigation water delivery within the Klamath Irrigation Project.

This is the “Brave New World of Klamath Water Management” of which KlamBlog has written before. It is ironic that a species with great capacity for adaptation to changing circumstances, i.e. humans, will be provided more “certainty” while species that are at risk for extinction are expected to adapt to and survive Reclamation's manipulation of flows and lake levels designed to maximize irrigation water delivery or, in the parlance of Reclamation, to provide “greater certainty” to federal irrigation interests.

Ah, the machinations of the Bureau of Reclamation! They provide an expanded perspective on why those irrigators whom the Bureau serves are accurately described by the term Irrigation Elite.

The Bureau of Reclamation has prepared a Biological Assessment on "The  Effects of the Proposed Action to Operate the Klamath Project from April 1, 2013 to March31, 2023 on Federally Listed Threatened and Endangered Species." Reclamation hopes this assessment and the variable flow water management scheme it proposes will provide ESA coverage for the "irrigation first" management the agency adopted under pressure from federal irrigation interests soon after the KBRA was adopted. KlamBlog described the campaign irrigation interests launched to pressure Reclamation to make filling Upper Klamath Lake as early as possible the agencies primary Klamath water management priority in a December 2012 KlamBlog post.  

A joint Biological Opinion on Reclamation's KBRA-era vvariable flow management scheme from the National Marine Fisheries Service (for Coho) and from the US Fish & Wildlife Service (for Kuptu and Tsuam, i.e. endangered Shortnose and Lost River Suckers) was due to be released on April 17th but has not yet hit the street. Perhaps the delay indicates that yet another reviewing federal biologist has had enough of the cumbia, irrigation first ideology of the KBRA.

Hope springs eternal....stay tuned!

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