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The Klamath Project

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Most people in Oregon and California probably never heard of it, until 2001 anyway. Until 2001 the agricultural community that depends on the Project for irrigation water had been quietly doing what they’d always done: farming. By 2000, the Klamath Project was providing water to 1,400 farms -  about 210,000 acres -  producing oats, barley, wheat, potatoes, and sugar beets, and fueling a $300 million ag-dependent economy throughout the Klamath Basin . . . until 2001.

History 

Under the 1902 Reclamation Act, California and Oregon ceded wetlands in the Klamath Basin to the Federal Government to "reclaim" for agricultural homesteading. Many of the 359,000 acres of wetlands were drained and offered for homesteads to WWI and WWII veterans. The Klamath Project was authorized in 1905 primarily to provide irrigation water and is managed by Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office (KBAO) in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The Project’s facilities include the Link River, Gerber, Clear Lake, and Anderson-Rose Dams as well as nearly 142,000 acres of wetlands and wildlife refuges.

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The Endangered Species Act

In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed two sucker fish under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and in 1992, a drought year, FWS recommended that Upper Klamath Lake be kept above a minimum elevation of 4,139 feet during the summer to protect the fish. For the first time in the Project’s history, irrigation deliveries were curtailed to meet minimum lake levels.

In 1996, Reclamation agreed to meet certain minimum instream flows to protect habitat for Tribal Trust resources in anadromous fish. In 1997, two species of coho salmon were listed under the ESA. A study published in 2000 by Thomas Hardy, Ph.D., a Utah State University hydrologist, called for instream flows to protect the fish that were much higher than those Reclamation had agreed to in 1996.

In 2001, a new FWS Biological Opinion (BO) for the suckers required that the minimum elevation in Upper Klamath Lake be raised to 4,140 feet with no exceptions for drought years, and a new BO based on the Hardy study called for increased flows for the coho. On March 28, 2001, a drought emergency for the Klamath Basin was declared by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. On April 6, Reclamation announced that based on the BOs and ESA requirements, there would be no water available from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation to the Klamath Project.

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Financial Aid and Partial Relief

Reclamation, the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD), the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) coordinated fast-track ground-water development and are working on a long-term ground water program. DWR, OWRD, OES, and Interior committed $9.5 million for drought relief, and OES is providing $5 million for well-drilling. The Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration are offering emergency loans, Governor Davis pledged $2 million in aid, and Congress approved $20 million in disaster relief.  More...

On July 24, 2001, Secretary Norton announced that due to higher than anticipated lake levels, about 75,000 acre-feet of water would be released from Upper Klamath Lake to the farmers to be used for livestock, to recharge wells, and to save some pastures or row crops. On August 7 a lawsuit was filed by several environmental groups challenging the water release and stating that according to the BO, any extra water must go to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to support waterfowl and wintering bald eagles. A deal was worked out with two irrigation districts to buy 2,700 acre-feet of water from Clear Lake Reservoir for the refuge, and while the deal did not result in the withdrawal of the lawsuit, the conservation groups are no longer seeking a temporary restraining order to halt all water deliveries to the farmers.  More

In the long-run, increasing Project storage has the potential to increase flexibility in Project operations, and feasibility studies will be made on raising Upper Klamath Lake and Gerber Dam. Reclamation also is working with FWS, OWRD, DWR, PacifiCorp, the California Waterfowl Association, irrigation districts, the tribes, and others in a mediation process to find a balance among the demands for water that will be acceptable to all interests and sustainable through a range of water year types.

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ESA Reform?

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will soon consider Senate Bill S.347 which calls for amending the ESA. The bill would direct Interior to use an increased amount of scientific and commercial data to help decide whether or not to list a species as threatened or endangered. Such a decision would have to be based on sufficient biological evidence that a recovery plan could be promising, and that the affected States and public would have to be notified and consulted about the status of a species proposed for listing under the ESA. But in the meantime, Interior has asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the FWS BO that led to the water shutoff in the Klamath Project.

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For more information, please contact our Klamath Basin Area Office Public Affairs Specialist
6600 Washburn Way Klamath Falls OR 97603 (541) 883-6935

Last updated on: August 28, 2009