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.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

It's time for a solution to the Klamath's recurring water crises

Once again the Klamath River Basin is in a "water crisis." With not enough water to fulfill all needs and demands, irrigators, federal tribes and fishermen are all clamoring for more water and for "emergency disaster assistance" from the federal government. In the middle are the federal and state agencies charged with meeting competing needs of threatened and endangered fish, water rights law and irrigator demands. 

Meanwhile the organization People's Rights has called for irrigators to “STAND UP AND PROTECT YOUR PRIVATE PROPERTY, YOUR WATER!” According to a report from The Counter, "People’s Rights is the far-right militia group founded by Ammon Bundy, known for leading a takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in 2016."

While the "crisis" is likely to be intense this year, the lack of sufficient Klamath River water to satisfy all fish, wildlife and irrigation needs has been a recurrent problem ever since the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Irrigation Project completed its final expansion into the bed of the former Tule Lake in the 1960s. Recurrent droughts and declining snowpacks have lessened inflow to reservoirs and intensified competition for declining water supplies. 

Toxic algae is one of the Klamath's problems caused by low flows and poor water quality

While reports focus on the Upper Klamath River Basin and the federal Klamath Irrigation Project, the progressive dewatering of headwater streams and mainstem rivers is not just a problem within the boundaries of the Klamath Irrigation Project. Above Upper Klamath Lake and in the Shasta and Scott Valleys headwater streams are dewatered and river flows are inadequate for migration and rearing of multiple species of fish. 

And the situation is getting worse. 

Shasta River flows declined rapidly in April when irrigation got rolling. Salmon need strong spring flows to aid their migration to the ocean.

There are three main reason Klamath River Basin streamflows have declined to the point where they are no longer adequate to support healthy stream ecosystems and healthy fisheries:

  • Irrigated agriculture has continued to divert and use surface water at the same levels it did in the 1960s even as the total amount of surface water available for irrigation and domestic use has declined as a result of drought and shrinking snowpacks. 

  • Beginning after the 1977 drought, many large irrigation wells have been drilled and groundwater extraction has increased dramatically. Groundwater has been used to extend both the season of irrigation and the amount of land under irrigation. Domestic wells have also proliferated in some parts of the Basin.

  • The Basin's upland forests, source of most of the water that flows downstream, have been largely converted from older, closed canopy forests to dense younger forests and tree plantations. Empirical research, including long-term, paired watershed studies, demonstrate that converting from older forests to young, dense forests results in larger flood flows and reduced flows during the irrigation season.

 And so, in yet another drought year, we prepare to play out another Klamath water drama replete with salmon deaths, harsh water demands, pleas for relief, lawsuits and who knows what else.

Missed opportunities

The tragedy is that there are solutions to the Klamath's water woes but those solutions are not being implemented or prioritized. In the long run, we can increase streamflows and water supplies by restoring upland forests and headwater meadow systems. With lower snowpacks, it is upland soils which must be relied upon to store water in winter and release that water during the dry season. 

However, restoring our uplands to secure water supplies and streamflows will take time and there is, so far, no consensus on how to accomplish the task. In the meantime, the only way to end the Klamath's recurrent water crises is to reduce the demand for water. Because the needs of stream ecosystems and fish can not be altered, it is consumption of surface and ground water that must be reduced. 

In the Klamath River Basin, irrigated agriculture consumes 80 to 90 percent of the water diverted from streams and springs and a similar amount of the water extracted from groundwater. To protect and restore stream ecosystems and fisheries that depend on them, water demand must be reduced by something on the order of 10 to 20%. The most practical, just and equitable way to accomplish the needed reduction is to reduce irrigation demand by purchase and retirement of surface water and groundwater extraction rights from willing sellers basin-wide. 

The dewatered Scott River near Fort Jones. Each drought years the dewatered period gets longer.

Fair and equitable irrigation demand reduction would include the Shasta and Scott River Basins and irrigated lands above Upper Klamath Lake as well as within the 220,000 acre Klamath Irrigation Project. In the California portions of the Klamath River Basin, water rights purchased from willing sellers can be formally dedicated to in-stream use and a water right for the dedication can be obtained. Instream flows can also be protected in Oregon under certain conditions. 

Congress must act

Basin-wide irrigation demand reduction requires both a federal mandate and taxpayer funding. Fortunately, two congressmen who represent opposite ends of the Klamath River Basin, California's Jared Huffman and Oregon's Cliff Bentz are well positioned and have the knowledge and backgrounds to get the job done. Both are lawyers who have worked on water issues for many years. Both also serve on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife. Congressman Huffman chairs and Congressman Bentz is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. 

These two Congressman ought to step up and get us on the path to the only real solution. A first step would be to hold hearings in their subcommittee focused, not on the conditions, impacts and need for assistance, but on how to craft a solution to the recurring Klamath water crises. Congressmen Huffman and Bentz should then write and introduce legislation to authorize and fund the solution those hearings highlight. Senators from both states have pledged help for the Klamath and are likely to support a bi-partisan solution spearheaded by the two congressmen.


Achieving a solution to the Klamath's water woes will not be easy. While most basin residents and many leaders would likely support a fair and equitable program to reduce irrigation water demand, there will be strong opposition, particularly from the thirty or so dominant growers who, through a web of family ownership and leasing irrigated land from retired farmers, control most of the most productive farmland within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project. 

One of the reasons powerful irrigators will likely oppose an equitable solution to the Klamath's water woes is the profits they earn selling groundwater when there is not enough water available from the US Bureau of Reclamation to satisfy irrigator needs. For example, the Tule Lake Irrigation District (TID), which occupies the very fertile farmland in the bed of the former Tule Lake, markets water from seven large irrigation wells located just south of the Oregon-California border. Those wells were gifted to TID irrigators by the State of California in 2001, one of the many taxpayer subsidies the Irrigation Elite have enjoyed. 

One of seven irrigation wells and massive pumps, given to the Irrigation Elite by the State of California,  which is now used to extract and market groundwater

If legislation does get rolling, citizens and those who care about our streams and wildlife refuges will need to be vigilant. As they have in the past, the dominant growers who control the Klamath Water Users Association and use the Family Farm Alliance as an additional lobbying arm will work behind the scenes to secure special benefits for themselves as "compensation" for irrigation demand reduction. 

For example, these federal irrigators got seventeen pages of "relief" written into the failed KBRA Water Deal. The provisions would have exempted the Klamath's federal irrigators from a suite of bedrock federal and state fish and wildlife laws. Special benefits and exemptions for the Irrigation Elite is one of the reasons KlamBlog vigorously opposed legislation to lock-in that bad deal. We will remain vigilant to make sure future attempts by the Irrigation Elite to secure benefits and advantages at the expense of fish, wildlife and other irrigators are exposed and defeated.

Getting on with it

The need to reduce the amount of water consumed by irrigated agriculture in the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott Valleys is, in the words of Dan Tarlock, a law professor who has studied Klamath River Basin water conflicts, "pretty clear." It is also clear that real leadership and investment of political capital will be needed to overcome opposition and get irrigation demand reduction authorized and funded. 

Congressman Huffman and Congressman Bentz are well qualified and well positioned to craft and secure passage of the necessary legislation. Those who want a just and equitable solution to the Klamath's recurring water crises should join together and ask those two Congressmen to claim their place in the history books as leaders with the skill and courage to get the job done.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Felice Pace on the Klamath COW's Restoration Plan and what it reveals

In my last KlamBlog post I described the self-styled Coalition of the Willing (the COW) which has been meeting with the encouragement of the Trump Administration's Interior Department to seek a "solution" to the Klamath River Basin's water management conflicts. 

I've now learned that the COW adopted "by consensus" what it calls the "Coalition Plan of Action." On April 9th "33 individuals from across the region" agreed to "take the Plan to their respective decision-making bodies for review and feedback." A copy of the full Plan of Action is available at this link

The Plan includes lots on the COW's process, procedures and goals. But what the COW is really about is revealed by who is attending, who is pumping in money in support and, above all else, by the "projects" the COW has prioritized in its Plan for government funding. Let's start with the projects.

The COW's Priority Projects

"Provisional priorities" for funding during the next two (federal) fiscal cycles are: 

  • Sprague river water quality analysis (Upper Basin)

  • Flood plain restoration action study (Upper Basin)

  • Biochar (Upper Klamath Lake but also possible for Keno Reservoir and the Klamath Straits)

  • Alternative energy analysis (listed as for "Refuges" but also benefiting federal irrigators)

  • Expanded use of PIT tags (for the "Mainstem")

  • KDD winter water storage feasibility (listed as for "Mainstem" but also benefiting federal irrigators)

  • On Project Plan (listed as for "Mainstem" but under control of federal irrigators and the Bureau of Reclamation. This is a KBRA holdover)

  • Groundwater recharge study (listed as for the "Scott/Shasta Rivers" but likely just for the Scott)

  • Water yield feasibility study (listed as for the "Scott/Shasta Rivers" but likely just for the Scott)

This list is instructive as a window into the culture of the COW and the strategy of those who are "facilitating" it. Here's my analysis:

Sprague river water quality analysis and the Flood plain restoration action study will advance the agenda of the private organization Sustainable Northwest (SN) which would most likely receive the funding and complete the assessments. SN leaders are major COW promoters and securing this sort of funding is their bread and butter. There have already been many years of similar "restoration" assessments, riparian fencing and other "restoration" above Upper Klamath Lake, but no sign those projects are substantially improving water quality.

Sustainable Northwest is one of the main advocates across the Northwest for the proposition that "restoration" can substitute for the streamflows fish and aquatic ecosystems need to be healthy. They support agreements like the KBRA and the Nez Perce Water Deal that trade flows for restoration project funding. For that reason, I consider the organization a threat to the Klamath River and to the restoration of Klamath Salmon. Self serving "restoration" organizations like SN would still be selling their feel-good projects and raking in the money even as the last Klamath River salmon fry died trying to reach the Pacific Ocean. 

The Expanded pit tags, KDD winter water storage and On Project Plan were promoted by representatives of the Yurok and Karuk Tribe who conduct most of the salmon monitoring pit tag expansion will enhance. Who can argue against better monitoring? The Bureau of Reclamation will be happy to fund more monitoring; funding Lower Klamath tribes gives Reclamation a means to influence tribal government decisions. 

KDD winter water storage will evaluate the feasibility of holding water in the upper basin in winter and then using that water to increase Klamath River flows at critical times, to avoid a juvenile fish kill for example. That is, in fact, the way Lower Klamath Lake and the Klamath Straits once functioned. A natural volcanic dam where Keno Dam now stands but with a significantly higher elevation, the volcanic dam backed up the River's flow, thereby expanding Lower Klamath Lake during winter and early spring. In late spring and summer as flows from above waned, Lower Klamath Lake would shrink as more water headed down the Klamath than was flowing from upstream. Water flowed from the Klamath River into Lower Klamath Lake and back to the River via the Klamath Straits, a natural stream flowing though a sea of tules. The tules cooled and cleaned the water.

The figure below illustrates how Lower Klamath Lake and the Klamath Straits functioned before the Klamath Irrigation Project drained Lower Klamath Lake and turned the Klamath Straits into an drain for highly polluted agricultural wastewater.  


The On Project Plan is a holdover from the KBRA. Karuk and Yurok representatives hope this plan will reduce federal irrigation water demand. I hope they are not holding their breath while they wait.

The Groundwater recharge study and Water yield feasibility study reflect the priorities of Scott Valley irrigators. They have already sought State Water Board funding for the recharge experiment. Irrigators hope recharging groundwater with winter flows will allow them to continue current levels of groundwater extraction used mostly to grow alfalfa hay. The second project stems from a long-standing dream of raising old dams at wilderness lakes to sustain streamflows that feed irrigation ditches longer during summer. Those same streams are often dewatered below the diversion points even as the ditches run full. 

This project is pie in the sky, would violate the Wilderness Act and is not going to happen. But these ideological Scott Valley ranchers can not let it go and they got it into the Plan for the second fiscal year.   

As for Biochar it is something the School of Forestry at Oregon State University and others have been pushing for Upper Klamath Lake for years. The idea is to make biochar from lake sediments and/or algae and nutrient supercharged water and in that way reduce the nutrient loading in Upper Klamath Lake and in the Klamath River below while producing a useful product. The biochar could be used to generate power as "a renewable energy replacement for dam removal." 

It is likely biochar has some Upper Basin irrigator support not only as an engineering solution they hope will replace marsh restoration (which requires converting what are now agriculture fields) but also as a path to their goal of securing cheap power to move irrigation water. Here's the link to a YouTube presentation on biochar and the Upper Klamath Basin. Apparently a feasibility study has been completed; although I can't find it online.

The seven selected projects were prioritized from the longer list the COW has generated. They tell us that, for the COW, engineering solutions like Biochar are preferred over low tech, natural solutions like marsh restoration. They also tells us that, at this stage, the agenda is to give something to everyone...or at least to everyone who is at the table.

Deja Vu

The COW is part of a broader strategy. It is intended to get as many basin interests as possible focused on collaborating to secure funding for the restoration projects they favor and which serve their interests. It is a precursor, intended to prepare those participating for a water deal that will seek to substitute "restoration" for Klamath River flows in order to, once again, provide federal irrigators with all the water they desire.

Few who are now participating will recall that the same strategy was followed when the KBRA was organized in the early 2000s. The precursor then was a $200 million proposal for federal appropriations negotiated by a "diverse" set of interests including tribes, salmon fishermen and federal irrigators. 

Most of the $200 million sought was not approved by Congress. However, the portion sought by federal irrigators, to the tune of $50 million, was included in the 2008 Farm Bill as the Klamath EQIP Program. 

Klamath EQIP was supposed to fund on-farm projects to conserve irrigation water in the Upper Basin, Shasta and Scott Valleys so that more water would be left over to flow down the Scott, Shasta and Klamath Rivers. But that water never materialized. While language inserted in to the final Farm Bill prevented citizens from learning the details of individual on-farm projects, it is well known that many federal irrigators used the funding to drill new wells in order to exploit groundwater for irrigation. Other Klamath EQIP Projects, like the center pivot irrigation system shown in the photo below, actually extended the irrigation period for pasture lands that previously lost surface flows by August or brought irrigation to new fields. As a result, Klamath EQIP may have actually increased total irrigation demand. 

             This Klamath EQIP Project in Scott Valley extended the irrigation season for this field resulting in more, not less, water use. It is unlikely the owner would have invested his own funds in this expensive irrigation system on low value pastureland.

Klamath EQIP was agreed to by diverse interests including federal tribes and salmon fishing organizations because it was going to conserve irrigation water and because it was part of a larger package that had something in it for their interests as well. It turned out to be a scam to benefit only irrigators, probably at the expense of streamflows and groundwater levels. Some of the same players have now created the COW funding plan. 

It has been my experience that those who do not learn from their mistakes are dangerous because they are prone to make the same mistakes again and again. Usually, as in this case, it is ego which gets in the way of seeing clearly and learning from ones mistakes. 

Will something similar to what occurred in the lead up to the KBRA take place with the COW's priority projects? And will those who are "collaborating" on behalf of tribal, river and salmon interests again help produce a Water Deal which, like the KBRA before it, sells out the flows fish need for the promise of funding for restoration and tribal governments?

Time will tell if history repeats. KlamBlog will be paying attention and will disclose what happens.  

Follow the money

The organizations funding the COW and administering its funding are also the entities which hope to get something they value from the process. Funders for the COW's high priced facilitation services include the Humboldt Area Foundation, Trout Unlimited, Rogue River Irrigators, Ducks Unlimited, the State of Oregon, the State of California, the federal government and three local counties—Klamath, Modoc and Siskiyou. The COW's fiscal agent is the Family Farm Alliance. Headed by Dan Keppen, previously executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, the Family Farm Alliance lobbies Congress on behalf of several of the most wealthy irrigators operating in the Klamath River Basin. Several of the organization's board of directors also farm land in California's Central Valley. 

Board members of both the Family Farm Alliance and the Klamath Water Users Association were profiled in the 2011 KlamBlog Meet the Klamath River Basin’s Irrigation Elite. The post discloses the total federal agricultural subsidies each board members received between 1995 and 2009. Taxpayer subsidies going to those wealthy irrigators ranged from $38,944 to $8,802,838 over that period.

Of particular note in the list of COW funders is Rogue River Irrigators: Why are irrigators who do not live in the Klamath River Basin funding the COW? Do they just want to help  their fellow irrigators on the other side of the mountain?

Like everyone else participating in the COW, the Rogue Valley Irrigators hope to get something from the process. By forming relationships with tribes and fishermen, they hope to prevent Klamath water, diverted by the US Bureau of Reclamation to the Rogue River Basin, from being returned to the Klamath River.  

Those Rogue folks know that their water right, dating from the late 1940s, is junior to many other Klamath water rights and, therefore, vulnerable. Water diverted to Bear Creek in the Rogue River Basin can be returned to the Klamath via court action. In fact, any citizen operating on behalf of the Public Trust with a good lawyer and sufficient funds could gain standing in court and return the water to the Klamath River where it could play a decisive role in preventing juvenile salmon kills. 

Who's attending COW meetings?

The list of those who attended one or both of the last two COW meetings reveals quite a bit about the COW and what we can expect from it. Here's the list of individuals and the organization they represent: 

  • Mike Ayers, Oregon Hunters Association 

  • Nadine Bailey, Family Water Alliance 
  • Bryan Baumgartner, Rogue Valley Irrigators 
  • Michael Belchik, Yurok Tribe

  • Mark Buettner, Klamath Tribes

  • Geri Byrne, Modoc County

  • Ned Coe, Modoc County

  • Chris Colson, Ducks Unlimited

  • Amanda Cooper, CalTrout

  • Derrick DeGroot, Klamath County Commissioner

  • Kelly Delpit, Sustainable Northwest

  • Susan Fricke, Karuk Tribe

  • Jack Friend, Medford Irrigation District

  • Bill Gaines, COWWC

  • Brian Hampson, Rogue Valley Irrigators

  • John Henion, City of Yreka

  • Becky Hyde, Rancher

  • Mark Johnson, Klamath Water Users Association

  • Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance

  • Lyndon Kerns, Oregon Farm Bureau 

  • Randall Kizer, TKH

  • Michael Kobseff, Siskiyou County 

  • Chrysten Lambert, Trout Unlimited

  • Frankie Meyers, Vice-chair, Yurok Tribe

  • Larry Nicholson, Upper Basin farmer

  • Elizabeth Nielsen, Siskiyou County

  • Lisa Nixon, Siskiyou County

  • Melissa Olson, The Nature Conservancy

  • Brad Parrish, Klamath Tribes

  • Natalie Reed, Siskiyou County

  • Jack Roggenbuck, Shasta Watershed Conservation Group

  • Randy Shaw, Klamath Co & Klamath Falls Chamber of Commerce

  • Joan Freeman Smith, City of Yreka

  • Glenn Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations (PCFFA)

  • Stan Swerdloff, Klamath Tribes

  • Kelly Thomas, Sustainable Northwerst

  • Craig Tucker, Karuk Tribe

Of the 37 attendees, 17 (46%) represent irrigation interests or county governments that strongly back irrigation interests, that is, Siskiyou, Modoc and Klamath Counties. Others attendees - Ducks Unlimited, Sustainable Northwest and The Nature Conservancy - work closely with irrigators on whom they depend to provide sites for restoration projects. Meanwhile, 7 attendees (19%) represent three of the Klamath River basins six federal tribes and 3 attendees (8%) represent sport and commercial fishing interests. 

Notably absent from the attendance lists are three of the Basin's six federal tribes - The Hoopa Valley, Quartz Valley and Resighini Tribes - as well as representation from environmental advocacy organizations which challenge, rather than seeking to work with, irrigation interests. Organizations which have championed refuges, including Oregon Wild, and those who have worked to secure effective regulation of agricultural pollution, like the North Group Redwood Chapter Sierra Club, were not invited to attend. 

Collaboration or manipulation?

In my view the handwriting on the wall is clear concerning what the COW is about and where it is headed. Like the KBRA before it, the intent is to manipulate the human compulsion to make nice in the group once "bonding" has occurred and "relationships" have been established. Those relationships will then be manipulated in order to get those who have wrested some power over water to voluntarily relinquish the power they have gained.

This fits a pattern. Those who hold power (or, in this case, water, which in the American West is a big component of power) never want to sit down, bond into relationship and negotiate a deal until I and the organization I represent have wrested some element of power from them; then they suddenly want to become friends. 

It has always turned out that the "relationship" those who have lost some power want is one in which I and my organization voluntarily give back the power we had gained in exchange for being part of the group, now accepted and "bonded" to others who were previously adversaries. 

So it is that "collaboration" has become a bad word in my book, amounting to nothing more nor less than manipulation. Let's recall that "collaboration" is what traitors did with the Nazis during WW II and that the "Coalition of the Willing" was earlier the name chosen for the war parties assembled by the Bush Administration to illegally invade Iraq. 

As history also teaches, these words and the realities behind them will not magically change in meaning or historical context if we have a Democratic Administration come January. They too will want those who have rights to river flows to voluntarily relinquish water back to federal and other irrigation interests in exchange for the promise of restoration funding.

Path to a true solution

I am not against a Klamath Water Deal. What I am against is a water deal which will not lead to a healthy river and the restoration of Klamath Salmon to abundance. Real restoration requires that needed restoration projects take place in addition to adequate flows, not as a substitute for them. In order to provide adequate flows, a plan with true potential to restore our River to health and our salmon to abundance must include an effective program to reduce irrigation water demand basin-wide. Tricks like Klamath EQIP are not acceptable; the only way to reduce irrigation demand in a manner that is sustainable is to reduce tha amount of land under irrigation. That can be accomplished in a fair, equitable and durable manner by purchasing irrigation water rights from willing sellers and permanently retiring those rights, thereby lowering total irrigation water demand. 

Those who go into any negotiation ought to have a well founded opening proposal as well as knowing their bottom line. In the case of the Klamath, the bottom line must include a clear path to best science flows in the Upper Klamath, Shasta and Scott Rivers via effective irrigation demand reduction. Anything short of that should be strenuously opposed.

It is somewhat reassuring that there are tribal and environmental leaders who appear to have learned important lessons from the past and who, as a consequence, refuse to be blinded by phony "relationship building" and manipulative "collaboration". The Klamath Basin's federal irrigators, along with the Bureau of Reclamation which serves their interest, will do all they can to deny our River and Klamath Salmon the water they need. Those who stand for the River must understand that and act accordingly. 

We must judge those who claim to represent the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon not by their words or by how well they get along with those who have other interests but rather by whether or not they achieve what is needed to restore a healthy river and abundant salmon. Best science flows in the Klamath, Shasta and Scott, adequate funding for science-informed restoration and real reductions in the amount of water diverted from our streams for irrigation: these are the yardsticks by which KlamBlog will gage success and failure. 

Stay tuned.