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.