Sunday, October 6, 2013

Greed trumps science - TID's plan to mine groundwater in the Klamath River Basin

Adoption of a Groundwater Management Plan by the Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) this past April has not been reported in the press...but it should have been. The Plan covers the California portion of the Lower Lost River Basin within the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project. In spite of evidence that the deep groundwater aquifer is being depleted, the Tulelake Irrigation District's plan is to
          "enable the District, individual landowners, and their regional neighbors to continue use of local groundwater as a supplemental water supply during years of surface water shortages."

Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) is controlled by fewer than 10 growers who, by virtual of their wealth and political power, dominate both the District and the Klamath Water Users Association. These growers have been successful for over a decade in preventing their "neighbors" from selling legal and contractual rights to Klamath River water so that the rights can be retired and demand for water diverted from the Klamath River can be brought into line with demand for that water.

One reason TID's dominant growers oppose retiring water rights and contracts is the money the District has pocketed in recent years selling groundwater. TID uses deep wells and pumps provided by California at taxpayer expense during a drought emergency to sell water to "neighbors" and to the Bureau of Reclamation.

One of nine deep wells and pumps gifted to Tulelake  
Irrigation District in 2001 by the State of California 

Reclamation buys well water from TID when demand for irrigation water exceeds the supply available from the Klamath River. Purchasing and retiring water rights and contracts within Reclamation's Klamath Irrigation Project would mean Reclamation would not have to buy groundwater from TID. As is usually the case in the Klamath River Basin, understanding how the money flows is key to understanding Klamath water issues.

Tulelake Irrigation District's Plan for Groundwater

TID's Groundwater Management Plan acknowledges that groundwater extraction since 2002 has lowered the deep aquifer and attributes the decline to below average precipitation. The Plan does not, however, use the model developed by the US Geological Survey for predicting the impact of groundwater extraction rates on future groundwater supplies. Instead TID's plan calls for continuing to use groundwater to meet any deficit in surface water supplied by Reclamation over irrigation water demand.

Located in the bed of the former Tule Lake, the Tulelake Irrigation District  
includes the highest value agricultural soils within the Klamath Project including 
18,000 acres of controversial, commercially farmed national wildlife refuge lands   

Since 2002, groundwater pumping and government payments in exchange for not irrigating have occurred whenever surface water supply from the Klamath River has not been sufficient to meet full Klamath Project irrigation demand. In other words, and in contrast to private irrigators, salmon, wildlife refuges and all others who depend on Klamath River water, federal irrigators have been made whole one way or another when there has been a shortage of Klamath River irrigation water. 

A know nothing plan

TID's Groundwater Plan claims that there is not enough data to conclude that groundwater underlying the district is being depleted. Consequently the Plan does not even consider actions to reduce irrigation demand. That conclusion flies in the face of factual data - including data in the Plan.

The graph below, extracted from TID's plan, shows the groundwater elevation underlying on of the District's deep wells. Between 2001 and 2011 groundwater elevation at this well declined 15.4 feet. Other well graphs in the Plan show that, across the District, full recharge of the deep aquifer is not occurring after years of heavy groundwater extraction. In other words, the deep aquifer is being mined.

Inline image 1
TID refuses to reduce pumping rates to stem groundwater depletion. Instead the irrigation district blames deep aquifer decline on a lack of wet years since 2001 when TID sunk the nine deep irrigation wells paid for by California taxpayers. Those nine deep wells play a key role in depleting the aquifer.

No data or studies are cited in the Plan to support the contention that a period of wet years will return. The Tulelake Irrigation District's Groundwater Plan ignores climate change predictions.

Here's how TID's Plan rationalizes continuing unrestrained groundwater extraction: 
          "The limited data and relatively recent increase in groundwater pumping does not provide for sufficient information to identify long term trends within the GWMP area." 

The United States Geological Survey disagrees. In a 2007 report, USGS scientists wrote:
          “Since 2001, ground-water use in the upper Klamath Basin has increased by about 50 percent. Much of this increase has occurred in the area in and around the Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Project, roughly tripling ground-water pumping in that area. This focused increase in pumping has resulted in ground-water level declines in the pumped aquifer in excess of 10 to 15 feet over a large part of the Project between 2001 and 2004. If pumping rates of recent years are continued, the aquifer could achieve a new equilibrium; however, the final configuration of the water table (depth to water) and the spatial and temporal distribution of the resulting effects to streams are unknown. Historical water-level data suggest that the water table should recover from recent declines if pumping is reduced to pre-2001 rates."

TID's Groundwater Plan ignores the 2007 report's key scientific finding because it does not conform to the desires of the dominant growers to maintain current irrigated acreage at any cost. In 2010 Tulelake Irrigation District pumped more deep groundwater than ever before resulting in unprecedented depletion of the deep aquifer.

USGS work product rejected 

USGS scientists have been studying groundwaster in the Upper Klamath River Basin for over a decade. The scientists used extensive groundwater data to develop a predictive model for use in groundwater planning. The USGS model can help planners determine "safe groundwater yield" - the amount of groundwater which can be extracted without permanently depleting an aquifer.

TID declined to use that model in their Groundwater Plan. Rather than face the need to reduce irrigation acreage in response to a changing climate, TID appears intent on continuing to mine the aquifer regardless of impacts.

Groundwater and surface flows are interconnected. TID's depletion of the aquifer is already impacting groundwater discharge to streams and can be expected to impact streamflow more if 2010 pumping rates continue during dry years.

Here's the link to USGS's Klamath Groundwater web page where you can view and download the Klamath groundwater science reports.

Greed trumps good sense

Selling groundwater to Reclamation and "neighbors" is not the only reason TID's growers oppose retiring water rights and contracts. In order to sustain the unusually high profit margins to which these dominant growers have become accustomed, land lease rents within the Klamath Irrigation Project must remain low. That requires assuring that the supply of land offered for leasing exceeds demand.

If they had the opportunity, it is likely many older and retired farmers who currently lease their farms to the large growers at low rents would sell off their water contracts and water rights in a program to reduce irrigation water demand. So far, however, the large growers have been able to block attempts to purchase and retire water rights and contracts from willing sellers who are their "neighbors".

The KBRA Water Deal follows this line. The KBRA proposes demand reduction only above Upper Klamath Lake where TID's large growers have no interests. A recent letter to High Country News by former Basin resident Rich McIntyre tells some of the history of how powerful growers blocked real Klamath solutions. It also identifies their motivation: overweening greed.    

Sacrificing the Wildlife Refuge

To add insult to injury, the Tulelake Irrigation District's Groundwater Management Plan raises the specter of using the remnant Tule Lake on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge to recharge the groundwater TID's deep wells are depleting. Pumping Tule Lake water into the deep aquifer would accelerate the dewatering of Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges during dry years further damaging resident wildlife and Pacific Flyway birds.

TID's desire to drain Tule Lake so that the District can continue mining groundwater may help explain why the US Fish and Wildlife Service failed to include that water body in critical habitat for Kuptu and Tsuam (aka Shortnose and Lost River suckers). A critical habitat designation could have prevented TID from draining the remnant of the once vast Tule Lake. 

Tule Lake Refuge is continually abused in order to satisfy the desires and
  sustain the profits of the Tulelake Irrigation District's dominant irrigators  
 (photo by Brett Cole)

According to the USGS, groundwater pumping has already negatively impacted Lower Klamath Refuge's water supply:           
           "Project water enters the Lower Klamath refuge through the Ady Canal and through the D Pumping Plant. Natural surface-water flow enters the refuge from Sheepy, Cottonwood, and Willow Creeks. Combined mean annual flow from these three creeks is approximately 30 ft3/s on the basis of miscellaneous flow measurements made throughout water year 1955 (Wood, 1960). However, these flows have decreased because of ground-water pumping on private lands outside of the refuge within the last 50 years."

Fueling KBRA dissent

The "me first, screw you" greed of TID's dominant growers is a core reason many of the Upper Basin's non-federal irrigators refuse to go along with the KBRA. Already weary of the competitive advantages the Bureau of Reclamation showers on dominant federal irrigators, the savviest Upper Basin private irrigators reject the deal written by the Klamath Water User Association's water lawyer. The KBRA consistently advances the interests of federal irrigators above all other needs.

The KBRA's ubiquitous lack of equity and fairness fuels dissatisfaction with that water agreement basin-wide. A deal which favors some tribes over other tribes, some environmental interests over other environmental interests, and federal irrigators over private irrigators is unstable and sure to create more rather than less conflict.

While many non-federal irrigators also oppose removal of PacifiCorp's Klamath River Dams, it is continuing economic injustice which is at the heart of their rejection of the KBRA. The need to compete year after year with growers who are the recipients of generous taxpayer funded subsidies offends traditional American values. Americans believe that government should be impartial, treat all citizens fairly, and that competition should occur on a level playing field.

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