Sunday, May 8, 2022

Same Old Sad and Selfish: Scott Valley Ag Folks don't want to do their part to help Coho survive

by Felice Pace
Drought Emergency Water Regulations, enacted in the midst of an historic drought and intended to give those Coho Salmon which spawn and rear in the Scott River Basin a chance to survive, are not needed by the Coho and will needlessly devastate Scott Valley farmers and ranchers if implemented. That is the message of the Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance, a new organization which, according to its website, formed to "be a unified voice communicating on behalf of local farmers and ranchers, spreading accurate information about Scott Valley’s agricultural producers, the Scott River, and its fish." Their vision is to "debunk the myths that are driving the state’s severe water regulations." 
So far the organization has published what it calls a "white paper" titled "WHY THE STATE WATER BOARD’S 2021-2022 FLOW REGULATION IS NOT NEEDED FOR COHO SALMON IN THE SCOTT RIVER." The organization's "mission' and "vision" are driven by the white paper's assertion that providing emergency flows to help Scott River Coho is an "existential threat" to farmers and ranchers in Scott Valley. 
The Scott River is a Klamath River watershed and, according to the consensus of fisheries biologists and restorations, the valley and canyon sections of the Scott are key to the survival and recovery of Klamath River Coho Salmon. Not so according to the Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance and its white paper.
 Klamath River Sub-basins with the Scott in pink

I lived in the Scott River Valley from 1976 until 2002. I still spend time there and I've been involved in water and fish issues there since the 1980s. When I decode the words of the new water alliance and read its white paper I see a determination to use selective information to support a preordained conclusion: that irrigated agriculture in the Scott River Valley has no impact on Coho or Chinook Salmon and is, in fact, the highest and best use of Scott River water.
The Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance  is the creation of three accomplished Scott Valley ladies: Theodora Johnson, Lauren Sweezy and Sari Sommarstrom. All three have lived in the Scott Valley most or all of their lives and all are part of families involved in irrigated agriculture as a major source of income. Below I look more closely at the new organization and its claims.

Carefully Selected Facts
"WHY THE STATE WATER BOARD’S 2021-2022 FLOW REGULATION IS NOT NEEDED FOR COHO SALMON IN THE SCOTT RIVER" (the caps are theirs) sets out to debunk the "myth" that Drought Emergency Water Regulations, enacted in the midst of an historic drought are needed to give Coho Salmon a chance to survive in the Scott River Basin. You can read the white paper at this link. You can also read the Department of Fish & Wildlife's rationale for requesting that the Water Board order the emergency flows at this link.
There are curious things about the white paper. For one, its authors did not put their names on it. I can easily understand why Sommarstrom, a recognized professional scientist, might not want to be associated with this particular white paper. It blatantly selects facts and omits those which do not support its forgone conclusions. Not exactly the scientific method on display.  
But scientists too can be advocates and no one can use all the data and cite all relevant studies. Nevertheless, even advocate scientists feel obliged to let readers know that theirs is not the only scientific view. The new alliance's white paper does not conform to that standard. Instead it discounts scientific and technical information on the needs of Coho and Chinook Salmon and omits key studies and reports, including studies and reports commissioned by the Karuk Tribe.   
As I see it, the white paper demonstrates once again that Scott River irrigators remain recalcitrant. They refuse to do their part to maintain Scott River aquatic ecosystems in order to prevent Scott River Coho and Chinook Salmon from continuing their long-term slide toward extinction. Scott Valley Ag folks think their water needs and uses are superior to all other needs and uses. 
Flood irrigation in Scott Valley on March 2, 2022. By law, irrigation is 
supposed to only take place "from about April 1 to about October 15 of each year."
The Restoration Dodge
Thirty five years of "restoration" in the Scott Valley has failed to result in the recovery of Scott River Salmon and most of the aquatic habitats on which they depend. Too many times "restoration" funding that was supposed to help salmon has instead been diverted to mainly benefit irrigators. Most importantly, "restoration" has failed to include restoration of the flows aquatic ecosystems and the salmon which depend on those ecosystems need to survive, much less to thrive. 

Rather than addressing the key need for adequate flows, voluntary "restoration" has been used to avoid providing the real, wet water that salmon and all fish need. That must change.
There's No Substitute for Recovery Flows
According to the best available scientific information, flows needed to recover salmon and restore salmon and related beneficial uses of Scott River are larger by month compared to the emergency drought flows requested by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and adopted by the Water Board. Once the drought is over, those who want Scott Valley Salmon restored should ask the State Water Board to adopt flow objectives for Scott River that are adequate for recovery.
State Water Board adoption of recovery flow objectives by month and water year type would provide certainty and resolve conflicts. Those who depend on water for irrigation and those who depend on water for salmon would know what they could expect and they could plan accordingly. Flow objectives adopted by the Water Board would be scientifically informed and socially balanced as required by law.
Robust Scott River Flow Objectives are urgently needed to restore not just Coho and Chinook but all the beneficial uses that are guaranteed in the California Constitution and Water Codes. Those "beneficial uses" include irrigation. The State Waters Board's adoption of flow objectives by water year type would help Scott Valley Agriculture make the transition to truly sustainable production. Real sustainable production is production which does not threaten other beneficial uses.  
The science exists to inform flow objectives by water year type. Water Board staff reservations not withstanding, that is what the Water Board should do.

Valley of Denial
The White Paper's authors refuse to recognize that the Scott River Basin could be producing many more Coho than it has been producing if only those consuming large amounts of surface and groundwater were giving back a little. But in the Scott Valley selfishness rules and has been redefined as virtue. 

In light of these social realities, only consistent and rigorous enforcement of California's Water and Wildlife laws can end the ongoing epidemic of selfishness and adequately protect the Scott River's water and fish. But rather than truly regulate, the State Water Board continues to accept "cooperative solutions" that may keep Coho from going extinct but will not restore Coho or Chinook Salmon as the vibrant and vital Public Trust Resources they once were and can again be. Cooperative solutions can play a role, but rigorous enforcement on bad actors is critical to successful recovery.
A key provision of the Water Board's orders for the Scott and Shasta Basins is a limitation on highly inefficient stockwatering methods. Abuse of stockwatering rights, including excessive diversions from streams and using stockwatering rights to irrigate pastures outside the irrigation season, has been one of the most blatant abuses of water law in Scott Valley. To put matters bluntly, many with stockwatering rights have been committing water theft. The new limitation still allows diversion of ten times the amount of water needed by a rancher's livestock. It is high time for the Water Board to eliminate hugely inefficient livestock watering, not just during the drought but once and for all.  
Those who care about Klamath River Salmon should actively support the State Water Board's emergency regulations and stockwatering limitations for the Shasta and Scott Basins. We must also continue to be vigilant. Political pressure on the Water Board to "compromise" what salmon needed is intense. Those who care about salmon and our rivers must continue to insist that Water Board staff not compromise California's Water and Wildlife Codes. 
If you think enforcement rather than "cooperative solutions" is what is most needed now, let the State Water Board know at this address: and let Cal DFW know at this address: If you see Scott Valley irrigation outside of the April 1 to October 31 irrigation season, or any other abuse of the environment, please file a confidential online complaint with Cal EPA.

Digging Deeper

I see the white paper as an accurate expression of dominant beliefs and positions shared by most members of the Scott Valley's agricultural community. For those interested in learning more about Scott Valley society and politics and how they impact salmon and all beneficial uses of water, below I dig a deeper into what I believe are errors and intentional omissions contained in the Ag white paper.

The white paper uses public information on the size of the Scott River's adult Coho run and information on Coho out-migration from the Scott to argue that the Coho are not really in danger of extirpation from the Scott River Basin and that, even if they were in danger, the emergency flows called for by DFW and being ordered by the State Water Board are not needed in summer because there are no Coho in Scott River at that time.

In making those assertions the white paper's authors ignore the following relevant factors:

#1 Coho Population Size

500 spawning adults is considered the absolute minimum population of a salmon stock needed to maintain sufficient genetic diversity within that stock or population group. Because not all migrating adults get to spawn, a run size significantly in excess of 500 individuals is needed to assure that at least 500 adults get to reproduce. Reduced genetic diversity means reduced resilience and increased risk of extirpation/extinction.

As noted in the white paper, in the Scott River Basin "average coho run size since 2007 is now 732 adults." Since not all migrating adults are able to spawn, 732 migrating adults is dangerously close to the 500 minimum spawning adults scientists believe are needed to maintain genetic diversity. Significant loss of genetic diversity vastly increases the chances that a fish or wildlife species or population will go extinct. But even before a critical threshold is reached, fewer spawners means reduced genetic diversity and increased vulnerability to changing environmental conditions. 

A low genetic population combined with significant year to year variability in the number of spawners and now three rather than just two "weak" Coho "cohorts" is not the robust Coho population that the white paper's authors claim. The threat of extirpation from the Scott, which would be the extinction of the Scott River Coho, is not some risk manufactured in order to punish Scott Valley irrigators; it is, rather, a clear and present danger well documented by scientific experts. What is it about those experts that the three authors question? It can only be either their competence or their integrity.

#2 Where Coho Are Found

The authors claim that the emergency flows are not needed during the irrigation season because "CDFW’s annual salmon reports clearly show that coho do not occupy the mainstem of the river during July through early October." The authors fail to mention that the reason there are no Coho in the River during summer and early fall is that conditions there are rendered lethal to salmon and most other fish.  

Removal of stream shade in order to maximize agricultural production in Scott Valley is one reason Scott River becomes too hot for salmon during the summer and early fall. Coho, and Chinook and Steelhead as well, flee into those cold tributaries which flow from wilderness and are not dewatered by irrigation diversions before they reach Scott River. 

Scott River below Scott Valley on October 6th, 2019.  
The Chinook Salmon run is flow-delayed nearly every year.

A stream's water temperature is also flow related: more flow means lower stream temperature and less flow means higher stream temperature. The dewatering of the Scott via irrigation and stockwatering are another reason the Scott River below Scott Valley is too hot for Coho and almost every other fish species to survive. If you doubt this just swim the Scott River below Scott Valley in August. I've done it and seen an eerie underwater wasteland devoid of all salmon and most other fishes.

According to the Clean Water Act as expressed in the North Coast Regional Basin Plan, Scott Valley Ag folks are supposed to maintain natural shade along streams that pass through the land they control so that stream water temperatures remain cool. Most Scott Valley Ag operators ignore this legal requirement. They plow and plant right down to the streambanks or allow their livestock to trample the banks, thereby removing shade vegetation which allows the water to grow hot while adding sediment that fills pools and renders spawning gravel unusable. 

The photo below shows plowing this spring right up to the streambank break along Moffett Creek in Scott Valley and the photo below that is of a feed lot located along lower Kidder Creek where a group of bulls is allowed to continually trample several hundred feet of streambank.

I've been filing complaints for years about these and other sites in the Scott Valley where streambanks are trampled, sediment is delivered to streams and stream shade is removed or prevented. Unfortunately, and in spite of the fact that the Scott is officially recognized as sediment and temperature impaired, the North Coast Water Board refuses to enforce the Clean Water Act when it comes to agricultural operations and operators.

The reason there are no Coho in Scott River below Scott Valley in summer is because the irresponsible Ag operators whose actions the white paper defends decrease flows and increase the river's temperature to the point where Coho can't survive in the River in and below Scott Valley and must flee to the free-flowing tributaries.

#3 The Ag Safety Net is Ironclad

The white paper's authors claim that maintaining the emergency flows for Coho threatens to put farmers and ranchers out of business. It is a false claim for several reasons, below are two:

          1. Since 1977 almost all agricultural operations and operators in the Scott Valley have developed the ability to irrigate with groundwater. Many of those irrigation wells and center pivot irrigation systems were paid for by federal taxpayers via the Klamath EQIP Program. When surface water is not available, the irrigators just use groundwater. This cuts into their profit margins but it is still profitable to farm using groundwater for irrigation.The Water Board's emergency regulations allows for some use of groundwater for irrigation.

          2. Some Scott Valley Ag producers receive taxpayer subsidies every year. In addition, whenever as a result of drought or other disasters Ag producers can't make a profit, the federal government steps in with Disaster and Farm Bill Payments to make those farmers and ranchers whole. For example, from 1995 to 2019 Ag producers in the 96027 (Etna) zip code (just one part of Scott Valley) received $6,010,299 in payments from the federal government (source: EWG Database). Those payments are financed by taxpayers. Payments made every year are augmented regularly when a disaster is declared. 

Ag producers have an excellent government safety net that guarantees their incomes. The safety net has many aspects, not just the two described above. For example, taxpayers pay part of the premium whenever an Ag operator decides to purchase crop insurance. I'm not against these income supports. It is just too bad that the poor and disadvantaged don't enjoy similar income support.

The levels of taxpayer support enjoyed by Scott Valley Ag producers individually and collectively are readily available from a public database at this link. The authors of the White Paper surely know about the ongoing crop, disaster and conservation payments because their family Ag businesses receive them. Why do you suppose they failed to mention them? 

#4 Key Information Excluded and Ignored

The authors' use and misuse of selective information is evident to those familiar with the relevant scientific information. The omissions are reflected in the white paper's bibliography. The only document from the Karuk Tribe included is the Emergency Petition itself. The Karuk Tribe commissioned and paid for several scientific studies and assessments that are relevant to the status and recovery of Coho and Chinook Salmon in the Scott River Basin. Those studies are well known and readily available in several locations, including the Karuk Tribe's website. Why were the Karuk Tribe's Scott scientific studies and assessments omitted? 

Denial of Reality Present and Past

Were these errors and omissions intentional or unintentional? Who knows and does it really matter? The fact is that the authors deny that Scott River Coho are at risk of extinction and totally ignore what experts have identified as the main risks to their continued existence. They also ignore what is called for in the Coho Recovery Plan.

The authors apparently believe that the need of Scott Valley ranchers and alfalfa growers to maximize profits trumps the needs of other species to survive. Why else would they publish such a mean spirited white paper which cherry picks the scientific information, failing to mention key facts that do not comport with their objective?

The white paper is one more confirmation that in the Scott River Valley we have a landed aristocracy which insists that their use of the land is the highest and best use; Coho and all else that depends on healthy stream ecosystems be damned.

This should not surprise us. The Scott River Basin's landed aristocracy got the land by expropriation, while eliminating its previous owners, the indigenous Shasta of Scott Valley. They continue to believe that they are entitled, not only to the land but also to the water. 

While the degradation of the Scott River by agricultural operations has been a long term process, the details have changed over time. In the 1970s, Scott Valley native Jim Denny wrote an article chronicling the destruction he had seen up until that point. You can read Jim Denny's Death of a Lady at this link

The Ag white paper demonstrates why we need to get rid of the Scott Valley Aristocracy. Aristocracies take care of themselves at the expense of all others, including less advantaged members of their own and other species. Aristocracies are antithetical to real democracy and, in the case of Scott Valley, to acknowledgement and redress for the historic genocide by which the Scott Valley aristocracy got "ownership" of the land and (until recently) control of the water.

We should not be surprised that the aristocracy is upset about losing control of the water. They refuse to take responsibility for the fact that it is their own greed, resulting in the dewatering of Scott River and the endangerment of Scott River Salmon, that created the current situation.

This is the way all aristocracies act and it is the main reason freedom loving folks came to the USA, that is, to escape aristocracy and its excesses. And that is why the Scott River Aristocracy should fall: it is not only unjust to the Scott River, its aquatic ecosystems and those who depend on them, it is not in keeping with American ideals.

What's Needed Now

What we need now is law and order in the form of rigorous enforcement of our water and wildlife laws which Scott Valley irrigation interests have so often and so callously violated. We need real and significant consequences for those who violate lawful Water Board orders. We need respect for all the beneficial uses of water, not just irrigated agriculture.
These matters need to be brought out in the open and discussed because that is the path to justice and social harmony. So I encourage all those reading this who have related thoughts and opinions to share them with neighbors and friends, including by leaving a comment on this post at this blog.  
The Scott Valley is a beautiful place but the lack of water justice is an ugly stain on its society. We can build a society whose beauty corresponds to the natural beauty of the Scott River Basin. All that is required is honesty and equity. It remains unclear whether we are up to the task. 
Postscript: You Too Can Weigh-In 
The Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance is using the "existential threat" it falsely claims is facing Scott Valley farmers and ranchers to build pressure on the State Water Board to rescind Drought Emergency Regulations enactment on behalf of Scott River Coho. You can weigh in on this issue too. The State Water Board is accepting comments at any time. Please email comments to Wherever you stand, let your voice be heard! That's democracy in action.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Negotiating a Klamath Water Settlement based on what the River needs: Analysis and Commentary by Felice Pace

Will the Biden Administration soon bring parties together to seek settlement of the Klamath River Basin's #1 water conflict? These repeated water conflicts are debilitating. Dam removal is good but won't alone restore the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon. That's why we ought to give settlement our best shot while the Biden Administration is in office. 

I've been encouraging Biden Administration officials to take on Klamath water settlement. You can too. Contact information for the Administration's lead officials on Klamath River issues can be found at the end of this post. 

A desire for settlement does not mean abandoning the objective of securing for Klamath River the flows that the River needs. Settlement must assure not just the survival of Klamath Salmon but also their recovery to levels that support, at minimum, tribal subsistence fishing. Any viable settlement will deliver the flows and water quality needed to restore and maintain the healthy river ecosystems on which healthy salmon depend.


Collections of algae on the Klamath River near Fort Goff and Beaver Creek.
Algal Mats are an indicator of seriously degraded aquatic ecosystems.

But there is a problem. We don't really know what flow levels are needed and when they are needed. The only Klamath River flow study was limited to start with and is now obsolete; it alone cannot indicate the flows which the River needs to support healthy stream ecosystems and the robust fisheries that depend on those ecosystems. 

I've suggested to Biden Administration leaders at the Interior Department that they immediately allocate the funds needed for a basin-wide flow assessment. Alternately, Congress could take the initiative by appropriating the funding and directing the Administration to complete a fairly rapid basin-wide flow assessment, including recommendations for coordinated flows from the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott. That would be a strong step toward the One Basin Management that has long been a goal for River Advocates, including a few who are no longer with us.

A rapid basin-wide flow assessment will consider and integrate flow studies from the Shasta, Scott, Upper Basin and Lower Klamath and use that integrated information to recommend interim integrated flows not only for the Klamath, but also for the Shasta and Scott River. The assessment would look toward coordinated, state and federal flow management. It would also define a path to final Klamath River flow recommendations based on the best available science and information. 

A basin-wide flow assessment could also look upslope and define management actions likely to maximize the water holding potential of our upland forests and headwater wet meadow systems.  

Balancing an over-allocated water supply

While we don't yet know the precise flows needed post dam removal to restore Klamath River aquatic ecosystems and fisheries, it is crystal clear that in most years there is not enough Klamath River water to satisfy all needs. Furthermore, climate change is expected to further reduce the amount of water available to meet flows, irrigation and domestic water demand. 

Irrigation amounts to about 80% of total demand for Klamath River water, while water supply for homes and businesses is about 20% of demand. Because it is only 20% of water demand and because providing water for family drinking and domestic use by law must be our highest priority, balancing water demand and supply can only be achieved by reducing the amount of water diverted for irrigation from the Klamath and its tributaries. Many millions of taxpayer dollars have already been invested in projects to increase on-farm irrigation efficiency; no more water can be saved in that way.

Under these conditions there is only one solution. In order to overcome conflicts that will just keep getting worse if not addressed, we must reduce the amount of water taken from our rivers for irrigation. The equitable way to do that is for the federal and state governments to purchase and retire water rights from willing sellers. Just as flows from the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott should be integrated, so too reducing irrigation demand should include federal and state-regulated irrigators in the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott.

Federal taxpayers provided $50 million dollars for improvement of on-farm 
irrigation efficiency in the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott Sub-basins, including 
providing numerous irrigators with new wells and center pivot irrigation systems.

Integrating and coordinating flows from the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott will spread the impact of reduced irrigation among all irrigators and not place the burden only on the Klamath Irrigation Project's federal irrigators. Spreading the pain of reduce irrigation equitably is not only the right thing to do, it will make settlement more attractive to federal irrigators who wield considerable political influence. 

Know how to negotiate

Those joining negotiations on behalf of the River must not enter negotiations unprepared. They must know going in both their initial position and where their bottom lines lie. And they must insist that Klamath River flows be negotiated first. Unless there is agreement on flows, it makes no sense to negotiate other items. 

Above all else those negotiating on behalf of the River must not make the mistake of accepting inadequate flows as we saw with the KBRA Water Deal. Flows the KBRA would have locked in via federal legislation subsequently resulted in the death of over 90% of juvenile salmon migrating down the Klamath River before they could reach the Pacific Ocean. Clearly, KBRA flows were not adequate for salmon recovery.

 Who should be at the table?

Interests which were represented in KBRA water negotiation include the Klamath Tribes, Yurok Tribe, Karuk Tribe and Hoopa Valley Tribe, the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) represented federal irrigation interests, PCFFA representing commercial salmon fishers, as well as Trout Unlimited, Cal Trout and American Rivers representing sport fishing and other river recreation interests. 

I think the list of interests participating must be expanded. For example, Trout Unlimited, Cal Trout and American River are conservation organizations with specialized interests. Negotiations should include at least one environmental organizations that champions a broad array of environmental concerns. Also, two of the Basin's six federal tribes were excluded from KBRA negotiations. The Quartz Valley Tribe and the Resighini Rancheria should be included this time.

During May of 2019 the Yurok Tribal Government formally recognized the Klamath River's personhood. As a person, the River deserves to be in the negotiations. But, as the KBRA demonstrated, tribal and specialized environmental organizations have a variety of interests and, as a result, can not be relied upon to adequately represent the River's interest. But who can represent the Klamath River's interest? 

There should be a team of people in any future negotiations whose sole focus is the River's interest. Because it was the Yurok Tribe which endorsed the Klamath River's personhood, perhaps the Yurok Court would be the proper body to select and empower a team of individuals to represent the River herself. 

A few of the many long-time River Defenders who should be  
considered as representatives for the Klamath Rivers's personhood interest

Bottom lines

Any successful negotiation involves give and take. All interests must get at least some of what they want and need. But there must also be bottom lines. Here are a few thoughts on bottom lines for the Klamath River.

  • As noted already, we need a basin-wide flow assessment to inform decisions about Klamath River flows and define options for integrated flows from the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott.
  • The Basin-wide flow assessment must include an assessment of how climate change has already impacted water supplies and streamflows and additional impacts we should expect going forward. 
  • Water is already over-allocated and climate change will make that worse. In addition, taxpayers have already financed hundreds of millions of grants to irrigators to improve irrigation efficiency; there are no more gains to be made via irrigation efficiency. Therefore, to balance water supply and demand we must reduce irrigation demand, which amounts to 80% of total Klamath River basin water demand. In order to reduce the impacts of those reductions on any one community, demand reduction should be basin-wide and must all be from willing sellers. Spreading the pain of reduced irrigation water among irrigators in the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott is the just way to reduce water demand.
  • "Restoration" must not be used as a substitute for the flows streams need to be healthy and support healthy fisheries. Allowing that to continue is a death sentence for Klamath River Salmon. It won't happen next year, but the slow decline will continue toward extinction if we allow the desire for restoration projects and jobs to mute or silence calls for adequate flows.   
  • Assistance to communities must not involve a quid pro quo of reduced River flows. If communities need the help of federal taxpayers or want money for restoration, it should be given based on need and without the unwritten requirement that those receiving grants shut up about inadequate river and stream flows. 

In conclusion

If the Klamath is a person then it is a person beset by disease and desperately in need of treatment. The only therapy that will work is allowing adequate flows that meet water quality standards to pass down from numerous sources, through our agricultural valleys and on to the river canyons below and, ultimately, the ocean.

                        For Klamath restoration to succeed, stream dewatering must end.                                 In the Scott River, as in most of our basins, that requires reduced irrigation. 

Some irrigation interests claim that any water allowed to flow to the ocean is wasted. They are wrong. Every one of our River's ecosystems, from the headwater wet meadows where they begin down to the estuary and the ocean, needs to be healthy for our River and Klamath Salmon to be healthy. Healthy stream ecosystems depend on adequate flows and water quality that meets standards.

Settlement is needed. Let's get it done during the Biden Administration. Please join me in urging Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to make Klamath Settlement negotiations a priority. Here's the contact information for Secretary Haaland and her Klamath lead, Liz Kline: 
 Deb Haaland, Secretary 
                                        Department of the Interior
                                        1849 C Street, N.W.
                                        Washington DC 20240
                                        202-208-3100, press 3
                                        Attention: Liz Kline <>

Friday, June 18, 2021

Report on the status of agricultural lands within the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Irrigation Project

by Felice Pace

On April 14 the US Bureau of Reclamation announced that, as a result of low flows into Upper Klamath Lake, its Klamath Irrigation Project would not be able to meet all 2021 irrigation water needs. Reclamation said it will maintain a minimum water elevation in Upper Klamath Lake to aid endangered Lost River and Shortnose suckers. Water was also allocated for some federal irrigators but at a rate far below what they desire.

Reclamation also announced it would not provide flushing flows to the Klamath River. Biologists say a spring pulse flow is needed to flush disease organisms from river gravels in order to mitigate the Klamath’s chronic salmon diseases epidemic. Natural salmon diseases have become epidemic in the Klamath, Scott and Shasta Rivers as a result of poor water quality and low flows.

As a result of these decisions, the Irrigation Project's main delivery canal, the A Canal serving the lower Lost River Basin, has not been filled and most juvenile salmon descending the Klamath River are dying before they can reach the Pacific Ocean.

In response to Reclamation’s announcement, the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) issued a press release claiming that Reclamation’s decision would cause “devastation,” including “dust storms” and calling Reclamation’s announcement the “worst day in the history of the Klamath Project.” The Yurok Tribes also issued a press release claiming that all interests are suffering. Along with the Karuk Tribal Council, the Yurok Tribe called for emergency federal assistance for all Klamath communities impacted by the water shortage.

Federal irrigators made similar claims of devastation in 2001 when, for the first time ever, federal irrigators did not get all the Klamath River water they desired. Back then I examined the impacts by air and on the ground and found that claims of “dust bowl” impacts were highly exaggerated. Nevertheless federal irrigators did loose production and income and federal disaster assistance was provided.

Federal and state assistance provided in 2002, including a $50 million fund in the 2002 Farm Bill and special assistance from California taxpayers, made it possible for many federal irrigators and at least one irrigation district to sink deep wells and outfit them with irrigation pumps. The development of groundwater for irrigation since 2002 has made it possible for many federal irrigators to continue farming as usual when Klamath River water is not available for irrigation.

Knowing this history, I decided to travel from my home on the Lower Klamath to the Upper Basin. I wanted to see for myself how agriculture was being affected by this year’s cutback of Klamath River water for irrigation. Here’s what I found:

While a few fields lie fallow, most agricultural lands located within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project are being farmed and irrigated this year. Within the Tulelake Irrigation District, for example, groundwater is being extracted from private and district-owned wells and supplied to irrigators who were planting potatoes and onions and taking the fist cutting from deep green alfalfa fields when I toured the area. Grain is also being grown, especially by irrigators within the Klamath Drainage District who are taking Klamath River water via the North Canal which the District owns. The North Canal takes water from the Klamath River below Upper Klamath Lake.

Below are a few photos illustrating conditions within the federal irrigation project on June 8th and 9th. Additional photos can be accessed at this Dropbox link.


Alfalfa fields after first cutting. 

First alfalfa cutting in progress.

I think these are a current and a harvested horseradish field with irrigation in progress beyond them.


Potato field being irrigated.

While I was in the Upper Basin I had lunch with a federal irrigator whom I have known for many years. He confirmed what I had seen driving the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath agricultural fields: while there are a few irrigators who will not be able to farm this year, most federal irrigators are able to farm normally using the irrigation wells paid for by federal taxpayers. The majority of the farms that are not irrigating are located on the southeast portion of the Klamath Irrigation Project, including around the town of Malin and east of the town of Tulelake. These are areas of smaller farms located on less productive soil.

Some individual irrigators and the Tulelake Irrigation District are using federal government owned canals free of charge to deliver the groundwater they are selling to other irrigators. While a few irrigators will not have access to irrigation water, agricultural production and the local economies that depend on that production will be only minimally impacted.

The conditions I found on the ground conflict with media reports about impacts resulting from the lack of Klamath River water for irrigation. Newspapers, radio and TV stations have repeated claims made in Klamath Water Users Association press releases. When examined, it turns out KWUA’s impact claims and reports on those claims are gross exaggerations.

Reporters and editors failed to fact check to verify federal irrigator claims. That should change. Those who claim to report first hand on Klamath River Basin conditions should get out on the ground to see conditions for themselves or check claims made by all parties using multiple and trustworthy sources.

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration, Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley and Representatives Bentz and LaMalfa have fallen over each other rushing to promise emergency assistance to federal irrigators. The Administration and these politicians apparently also failed to fact check conditions on the ground or to even notice that the assistance they legislated for federal irrigators just a few years back has yet to be fully expended.

I can now summarize the factual situation: Federal irrigators made grossly exaggerated claims about what would result from the lack of Klamath River water for irrigation. The media repeated those claims without checking to see if they were true. Oregon politicians rushed to promise and the Biden Administration to provide emergency assistance to federal irrigators without sending out staff or checking multiple sources to verify the claimed need for emergency assistance.

I believe the time has come to get real about impacts and get moving on solutions. It is time for irrigators, tribes, fishermen and restorationists to stop looking for the next emergency payment and the next taxpayer grant and instead to think hard about what can be done to balance Klamath waters. It is also time for the Oregon and California Congressional Delegations to provide real leadership. They  should immediately schedule hearings focused on solutions and then use that testimony to craft bi-partisan legislation that will balance Klamath waters.

It is time to break the cycle of recurring conflict over water and the emergencies, real and manufactured, which that conflict creates. I’m available to clarify this testimony and to explore what a real solution will include.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Who is suffering from lack of Klamath water? Examining federal irrigator claims


This post is a renewal of KlamBlog's effort to unearth and bring to light the ecological, social, economic, legal and political realities that drive struggles over water in the Klamath River Basin. We concentrate on aspects that are not generally known and those which are intentionally hidden or misrepresented.    

Our goal is to educate and empower those who reside within the Klamath River Basin based on the premise that "knowledge is power." We also aim to empower the reporters and editors who file articles and pen editorials about Klamath water issues in hopes they will be less susceptible to the "spin" that is offered by competing interests, including irrigators, tribes and conservation organizations. 

Of course I have my own bias, just like the others. I am biased for the Klamath River. 

On May 9th 2019, led by its dynamic chief attorney Amy Bowers Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe recognized the personhood of Klamath River and its right "to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve; to have a clean and healthy environment free from pollutants; to have a stable climate free from human-caused climate change impacts; and to be free from contamination by genetically engineered organisms.” That the Klamath River is a person is exactly what I was taught by Karuk elders who put me on the path that led to KlamBlog. 


Examining federal irrigator claims

This year the Klamath River Basin's federal irrigators have declared that the US Bureau of Reclamation is taking away their ability to farm by keeping too much water in Upper Klamath Lake and allowing too much water to flow down the Klamath River. Low snowpack and inadequate inflow to Upper Klamath Lake have, in fact, limited the ability of the US Bureau of Reclamation to meet all its obligation to deliver irrigation water, while simultaneously also meeting the needs of threatened and endangered species in the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake. 

The protesting federal irrigators are represented by the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA). Here is how KWUA's President Ben DuVal reacted to Reclamation's announcement: “Family farms, rural communities, and wildlife are going to suffer beyond imagination.”

Beyond imagination?  

This is not the first time we've heard such rhetoric. In fact, every year when there has not been enough Klamath River water to satisfy the desires of growers to irrigate 200,000 acres within the Klamath Irrigation Project, spokespersons for federal irrigators and their politician shills loudly proclaim that farming is going to come to a standstill and that the resulting social and economic impacts will be devastating. 

Back in 2001, the first years federal irrigators did not get all the Klamath water they desire, we were told that the Upper Klamath River Basin was being turned into a "dust bowl." This year, federal irrigators are claiming that workers and town businesses will also be deeply hurt According to a KWUA Press Release:                                          The devastating lack of irrigation water for yet another year is likely to prove too  much to bear for the employees of the farmers and ranchers, who will be facing severely reduced hours or no work at all. This impact is multiplied for the local businesses, the regional economy, and local public agencies that are dependent on the contributions of agriculture into the economy.

These claims are accepted at face value by reporters and repeated in newspaper, TV, radio and other reports on the water situation in the Klamath. They can not help but elicit sympathy from citizens everywhere. I too am sympathetic to both irrigators and workers who are not able to engage in the activity that puts bread on their tables and helps pay their mortgages. But are those claims accurate and truthful?

That's the question I examine in this post. Using on-line tools, including the Environmental Working Group database of government subsidies to agricultural producers and Google Earth Pro's current and historical Landsat images, I take a close look at how agricultural production and income within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project has been impacted when Klamath River water has not been available to meet all irrigation water demands. The post updates and supplements other KlamBlog posts which can be read by clicking on KlamBlog's "understanding agriculture" label.

Examining past claims

Here's the link to the Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Database's results for the Tulelake zip code: The zip code is dominated by the Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) which includes roughly 20% of the land receiving subsidized irrigation water via Reclamation's Klamath Irrigation Project. 

Farming on rich peat soils that once were the bed of Tule Lake, TID is where most of the largest growers using Klamath River water for irrigation reside. Clicking on the individual producers shows the commodity, conservation and disaster payments that irrigator received each year beginning in 1995 and continuing through part of 2020.

The data for individual growers residing within the Tulelake zip code shows that, in the same years that they received "disaster" payments, many irrigators also received crop subsidy (commodity) payments. That includes 2002 and 2003 when disaster payments based on the 2001 growing season were received by individual irrigators. Crop subsidy payments were received by federal irrigators for the 2001 growing year which is the same year the federal irrigator organization, Klamath Water Users Association, was claiming that federal policy and the ESA had created a "dust bowl" in the area.

If the cut-off of federal irrigation water truly ended all farming in 2001, growers would not have received commodity payments. That means we can determine the extent to which the "dust bowl" claims are true by comparing 2002 crop subsidy payments to crop subsidies received by growers the previous and subsequent year when there was no water shut-off. Examining disaster payments to irrigators will also provide insight into the extent to which KWUA's 2001 "dust bowl" claim is an accurate description.  

Below find conservation, disaster and crop subsidy payments from the federal government to Crawford Farms and Staunton Farms, the two largest growers operating within the Tulelake zip code during the years 2001, 2002 and 2003. These are not the only taxpayer subsidies received by the Crawford and Staunton families. Both families control lots more land within the Klamath Irrigation Project through a web of family member ownership and trusts.

                     Payments to Crawford Farms                                                             

   Year      Conservation       Disaster       Crop Subsidies 

   2001           $593                    0                   $57,430

   2002           $593                $9,075              $13,936

   2003       $158,016                 0                   $45,792


                     Payments to Staunton Farms 

    Year       Conservation       Disaster       Crop Subsidies 

     2001               0                      0                   $79,323

     2002               0                 $23,665             $40,000

     2003          $87,338                 0                  $12,628

Payments are listed in the year they were received by growers. That means payments received in 2002 were for 2001, the first year irrigation water was curtailed to provide flows in Klamath River for Coho salmon. Payments received in 2003 were for the 2002 growing year, the year over 60,000 adult salmon died in the lower Klamath River as a result of low flows and bad water quality creating a salmon disease epidemic.  

So what can we conclude based on these payments? 

First, crop subsidies given to each growers indicates that irrigation continued during the 2001 growing season. While commodity production decreased, the Basin was not rendered a "dust bowl"as claimed by KWUA and disaster payments made up most of any loss in income due to the lack of irrigation water. 

When federal irrigation water was not available, growers likely utilized groundwater to irrigate high value row crops on their best farmlands. The main row crops grown in the Tule Lake zip code are potatoes, onions, alfalfa hay, mint and horseradish. Those crops do not receive commodity subsidies which, in the Klamath River Basin, are typically for barley, wheat and other grains. 

Second, note that in 2003 Crawford Farms received $158,016 and Staunton Farms $87,338 in Conservation Payments. "Conservation" in this case may have been simply leaving land idle to conserve water or planting cover crops that don't require irrigation. The payments were made under the NRCS's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Congress earmarked $50 million in the 2002 Farm Bill for EQIP in the Klamath River Basin.

Conservation payments to federal irrigators for the 2002 growing season were by far the highest amount received over the 25 year period from 1995 through 2020. Those payments were received for the same year that federal management of water in the Klamath River Basin killed over 60,000 adult salmon in the lower Klamath River.  The two actions combined resulted in a significant transfer of income from those who depend on salmon to the Klamath's federal irrigators. Those who depend on salmon are, for the most part, the descendants of the Basin's Indigenous native people; The Klamath's federal irrigators, on the other hand, are mostly the descendants of white settlers. So it is that federal water policy in 2002 was, In KlamBlog's view, racist in effect if not intention.

Exploiting groundwater

While there were a few irrigation wells in the Tule Lake area prior to 2001, the number of such wells has ballooned since then, including ten large irrigation wells that were gifted by California taxpayers to the Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) in 2001. The California Department of Water Resources estimates that 35 to 45 new irrigation wells were developed in the Tule Lake area between 2001 and 2010. Some of those wells are now used to market groundwater to other irrigators and to the US Bureau of Reclamation. 

The Klamath's federal irrigators do not like to talk about their use of groundwater to sustain production when Klamath River water is not available. Instead they act as if they are dependent on Klamath River water in order to be able to farm. But the fact is that most federal irrigators now have irrigation wells from which they can irrigate any time they choose.

Below is a graph showing purchase of groundwater within the Klamath Irrigation Project by the US Bureau of Reclamation between 2001 and 2010. Basically, water was purchased in every year of below average precipitation and snowpack. That groundwater was then supplied to irrigators, perhaps including the very irrigators who are members of the irrigation districts which sold Reclamation the water.

 -          Figure 2. Supplemental groundwater volume purchased for the Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Irrigation Project, upper Klamath Basin, Oregon and California, 2001–10. Groundwater was not purchased in 2002, 2008, and 2009.

The US Bureau of Reclamation purchasing groundwater in order to supply irrigation water to the very same irrigators who sold them the water highlights the species of corrupt practices which characterizes federal irrigation projects not just in the Klamath River Basin but across the West. Corrupt practices which benefit federal irrigators, but not other producers, is one of the reasons I identify federal irrigators as an Irrigation Elite.   

The use of groundwater for irrigation has been documented by the US Geological Service. In their 2015 report "Effects of Groundwater Pumping on Agricultural Drains in the Tule Lake Subbasin, Oregon and California" USGS gives the amounts or groundwater extracted by federal irrigators prior to and after 2001:                                      Since 2001, groundwater pumping has increased in the Upper Klamath Basin in response to changes in surface-water management and to a series of drier-than-average years. Much of this increase was related to programs to supplement pumping for the Project. In 2000, total pumping in the upper Klamath Basin was estimated to be 150,000 acre-ft (not including supplemental pumping in Oregon). Additional pumping for the Project began in 2001 and reached 75,800 acre-ft by 2004. Of this additional pumping, 61,000 acre-ft took place in the Lower Klamath Lake subbasin and lower Lost River drainage, which includes the Tule Lake subbasin (Gannett and others, 2007). Supplemental groundwater pumping continued through 2007. No reported Project-sponsored supplemental groundwater pumping occurred in 2008 and 2009, but drought conditions in 2010 resulted in supplemental pumping of more than 100,000 acre-ft.

Groundwater extraction of 100,000 acre feet is enough water to irrigate crops on between 30,000 and 50,000 acres. 

No "dust bowl"

The lack of the "dust bowl" that federal irrigators claimed was created in 2001 can also be verified using aerial and ground-based photographs and by examining the time series of Landsat images available on Google Earth Pro. Both confirm that in 2001 less irrigation water was used, with many irrigators growing more wheat and barley which require less water as compared to alfalfa hay and row crops. That decision reflects the higher cost of using groundwater for irrigation. While agriculture was impacted in 2001, the claim that providing Klamath River water for fish created a "dust bowl" is clearly a false claim:

Landsat images of the Klamath Irrigation Project area in June 2000 (top) and June 2001 (bottom). Fewer green fields in 2001 indicates less irrigation and fewer fields growing alfalfa and row crops. Tan and brown fields were either fallow or were used to grow grain which requires little irrigation.

Row crops growing in the Tule lake Basin in 2001

Current irrigator claims

This year the Basin's federal Irrigation Elite are again claiming that a "devastating lack of irrigation water" will create hardship, not just for growers but for workers and shopkeepers as well. Based on past experience, and in light of the extensive development of groundwater for irrigation since 2001, KlamBlog is skeptical. 

Fortunately, there is a way to check the veracity of federal irrigators claims of a "devastating lack of irrigation water" this year. Below is the Google Earth aerial image of the Klamath Irrigation Project's main agricultural lands. The image was taken in May of this year, 2021. 

Does this look like a "devastating lack of irrigation water" to you?

A "devastating lack of irrigation water" is extremely unlikely given the number of irrigation wells that have come on line since 2001. Here's a map showing "production" (irrigation) wells in the main agricultural lands within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project:

Over the years I've observed that some individuals involved in agriculture believe that status gives them a license to lie at will. Because farming and ranching is so revered in this country, reporters usually accept and repeat the falsehoods without question and with no fact checking. Blind acceptance of the statements of federal irrigators and their organizations ought to end. Above all else, claims made by the Klamath Water Users Association merit fact checking.  


KlamBlog has shown above that federal irrigator claims that "devastating" social and economic consequences to farming and communities occur when Klamath River water is not available for irrigation are grossly exaggerated. Irrigation continues using groundwater whether or not the Bureau of Reclamation delivers Klamath River water. Any fall-off in agricultural production is the result of federal irrigators choices, not government actions.

When real world impacts to agriculture have occurred, federal taxpayer assistance has compensated federal irrigators for the loss of income. In some cases federal irrigators may have continued to farm using groundwater even while they were accepting government disaster payments based on a lack of federal irrigation water. Further investigation is warranted by the Department of Interior Inspector General to determine if some irrigators took disaster payments for acreage they continued to farm. 

Since most federal irrigators now have the option of irrigating with groundwater, why do they create such a fuss when there is not enough Klamath River water available for irrigation? The answer is profits: Using groundwater for irrigation requires substantial extraction cost. When Reclamation puts water in the canals on the other hand, irrigators just take all they need with much lower pumping costs or using flood irrigation. Profits are significantly higher when a grower uses Klamath River water for irrigation as compared to when they use groundwater. But farming with groundwater is profitable; otherwise it would not occur.

A call for better reporting 

In light of the misrepresentation of impacts and conditions documented above, journalists reporting on Klamath River issues and editors penning related opinions should fact check claims made by federal irrigators and their organizations. In fact, we think claims made by federal tribes, commercial and sport fishing organizations, river organizations and independent advocates like KlamBlog also ought to be fact checked. 

All interests put their "spin" on events and may bend the facts to fit their preferred narrative. It is the responsibility of reporters and editors to distinguish truth from the false and exaggerated claims which one sees on a regular basis whenever Klamath River water management is at issue. 

Reporters, editors and, for that matter, students and any other member of the public with an internet connection can verify for themselves how much farming is actually going on anywhere within the Klamath River Basin at any time and compare that to what was happening in previous years. Google Earth Pro with its historical Landsat imagery is the tool that makes it possible to quickly fact check claims about how much irrigation is occurring.

The bottom line

When Klamath River water is not available, the Klamath River Basin's federal irrigators have three options: They can farm as usual using groundwater, let their land lie fallow and accept disaster payments, or get paid by the NRCS to plant a cover crop and collect disaster payments. 

Whatever choice individual federal irrigators make, they are going to come out financially whole (or nearly so) one way or the other. Furthermore, because groundwater for irrigation is readily and widely available, there is no reason why agricultural production within the 220,000 acre Klamath Irrigation Project must fall when Klamath River Water is not available. Because groundwater is widely available for irrigation, any fall-off in agricultural production is the result of irrigator choices, not a lack of irrigation water.

Recent reporting on Klamath River Basin water issues has stressed that "all sides" are going to feel pain this year. We have shown that is not true. Because they have ready access to groundwater, federal irrigators have the water they need to farm. Claims to the contrary are false claims.

I hope reporters and editors will use the tools provided above to fact-check claims and better inform the public about actual conditions in the Basin. Citizens of the Klamath River Basin have a right to know when the Klamath Water Users Association or others make false claims. If false and exaggerated claims are called out by reporters and editors, perhaps leaders and spokespersons will stop making them....or so we can hope.