Monday, April 8, 2024

Cattle are "Drinking the Colorado River Dry" - Is the same true for the Klamath?

by Felice Pace 

High Country News reported recently on a research study which found that, within the Colorado River Basin, agriculture:

  • Consumes 74% of the water directly used by humans, including the water used producing cattle feed, and that
  • Cattle-feed crops (alfalfa and other hay) consume more Colorado River water than any other crop category, accounting for 32% of all water from the basin; 46% of direct water consumption; and 62% of all agricultural water consumed.

That got me wondering about how much of the Klamath River Basin's surface water is consumed by agriculture in general and for beef production. According to US Bureau of Reclamation studies

  • Agricultural irrigation uses about 98% of the total surface water used throughout the Klamath River Basin.
That staggering amount includes irrigation using surface water and surface water consumed directly by cattle and other livestock.
The dewatered Scott River and alfalfa fields 
under irrigation near Fort Jones

There is probably no other river basin in the USA where agriculture accounts for such a high percentage of total surface water consumption. While that reflects the overwhelmingly rural nature of the Basin, where population density is among the lowest in the West, it also points to the opportunity (some would call it "the necessity") for a rebalancing of Klamath waters.
Furthermore, because groundwater and surface flows are closely related in significant portions of the basin, including the Scott River Subbasin, and because of the significant use of groundwater for irrigation, especially cattle production, the impact of Upper Klamath, Scott and Shasta Valley agriculture on total water supplies is also likely to be in the 90 to 98 percent range. For this reason, any significant balancing of Klamath waters must include not only surface water but also our Basin's interconnected groundwater as well. 
Without a true balancing of the waters, that is, an alignment of supply and demand which including adequate streamflows, there can be no Klamath water peace, conflict over water will continue and intensify with climate change. 
The other main current impediment which is preventing a balancing of Klamath waters is the lack of political will within the Biden and Newsom Administrations to get the job done. Here as in the Columbia and other salmon basins, Biden's folks and Newsom's prefer to buy off tribes and restorationists with funding for "habitat restoration" while totally ignoring and omitting funds for the flow assessments which must form the basis for a true balancing of the waters. 

So far that has worked with most of the salmon tribes. But I still have hope that tribal leaders will awaken to the limits of "collaboration" and "habitat restoration" and will become, once again, the leading advocates for the necessary flow studies and a true balancing of the waters. 
For a return to Klamath River tribal flow advocacy to take place, I believe that new, young and dynamic leadership, ready to demand change, must replace those among current tribal, county and other leaders who are totally bought into the twin distractions - "collaboration" and "habitat restoration".

 Why I have hope!
 Some of those I'm counting on!
I have faith the young leaders our River needs will soon assert themselves. When they do, KlamBlog will do our best to report on it. 
Stay tuned! 

Postscript:  There will be some readers who take exception to my characterization of "habitat restoration" as a "distraction". I want those folks to know that I was an early advocate for restoration and led the successful first efforts to get Congress to fund salmon habitat restoration way back in the 90s. I still support smart, targeted habitat restoration. However, all the good habitat restoration possible will not restore living rivers. For true and sustainable restoration to take place, adequate flows are required. As a matter of equity, I believe adequate flows must be established by water year type. In that way, when there is abundance, all share in it. And when there is scarcity, all share in that as well.