For weeks now, news from and about the Klamath River Basin has been dominated by speculation that “calls” for water would be made in the Upper Klamath River Basin. A water “call” is a term of art in western water law indicating when a water right holder with senior rights calls for those with junior rights to curtail water use so that the senior right holder gets water.
Speculation ended on June 10th when the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Klamath Tribes of Oregon1 asked the State of Oregon to shut down irrigation above Upper Klamath Lake so that the Reclamation and the Tribes' senior water rights could be met.
Along with the Williamson and Sprague Rivers, the Wood River flows
into Upper Klamath Lake. Hay and Cattle Agriculture dominate here.
The current “calls” are the first ever in the Oregon portion of the Klamath River Basin and are possible now because the State of Oregon has completed its part of the long-running Klamath Water Rights Adjudication. The state proposed Final Order of Determination is now in the hands of state-court Judge Cameron Wogan where challenges to the proposed Final Order will be resolved.
Irrigators above Upper Klamath Lake are private entities and engage primarily in hay and cattle operations. Some of the pastures are used by cattle trucked in from California. According to the State of Oregon, irrigators above Upper Klamath Lake hold water rights which are junior to those of the Klamath Tribes for in-stream flows as well as to rights held by the Bureau of Reclamation for federal irrigation by private entities below Upper Klamath Lake.
Some of the irrigators who will be required to stop diverting water have asked Judge Wogan for a “stay” to prevent the state from enforcing the Adjudication's Final Order pending challenges in his court; a decision on the stay request has not issued. When the water “call” was made, these same irrigators asked Judge Wogan for a temporary restraining order to prevent irrigation shut offs. That request has been denied.
As surface water diversions above Upper Klamath Lake are shut down, more water will flow into Upper Klamath Lake. That means more water will be available to the Bureau of Reclamation. Reclamation will decide how to divide that water among three uses:
- irrigation within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project,
- a water supply to maintain wetlands on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, and
- flows in the Klamath River for ESA-listed Coho Salmon and to sustain Chinook Salmon, Lamprey and other aquatic resources to which the Yurok, Hoopa, Resighini and Quartz Valley tribes have a right by virtue of their federally-designated reservations.2
When not under court order, Reclamation has almost always prioritized delivering irrigation water to private growers within its Klamath Irrigation Project. This year will be no different. Buoyed by a new Biological Opinion on how its operations affect ESA listed species, the Bureau is already dewatering Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
Spring flows in the Klamath River have been reduced by Reclamation to about 1,000 cfs which could be an historic low for spring river flows. In fact, during the current water year (beginning October 1st), Reclamation has been starving the Klamath River for water as it has every year since the KBRA Water Deal was signed.
Below is a graph showing flows below Iron Gate Dam since October 1st along with the long term (52 year) average or median flows. This water year actual flows – which are controlled by Reclamation - have been far below the historic average except when the federal agency had to dump water down the river because high storm run-off had already filled all available Upper Basin storage.
Flows below Iron Gate Dam since October 1, 2012
Historic (52 years) median(average) flows are the gold dots
The other water “calls”