Water to Flow in Klamath Basin

By Jo McIntyre and Scott Hogenson | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

5th add includes quotes from local agriculture businessmen and the Tulelake Irrigation District.

- Interior Secretary Gale Norton will order the release of irrigation water for parched farmland in the Klamath Basin, department officials said.

Norton arrived in Portland, Ore. Tuesday to announce that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been authorized to release 75,000 acre feet of water into the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project, which irrigates land for about 1,400 farmers in the region.

"The reason I am taking this action is because the Bureau of Reclamation has been taking measurements and has determined that Upper Klamath Lake is at a higher level than projected," she said in a statement.

The water had been shut off since April following an Endangered Species Act lawsuit that kept the water from the farms. Local farm officials are expected to coordinate the water release, which could begin as soon as Wednesday, officials said.

Norton said the water level in the lake was higher than projected because of conservation and recent "scattered thunderstorms that have provided much-needed rain to the area and the lake."

About 10,000 acre feet of the release is needed just to recharge the irrigation canals, and Norton said the release will amount to about 25 percent of the normal amount of irrigation water farmers use during the season.

The denial of irrigation water in the Klamath Basin, which has been made available to farmers there for nearly a century, is hoped to "save pastures, alfalfa and hay, or even row crops that have recently lost their well water supply," she said.

Local residents in recent weeks have attempted to cause an unauthorized release of water for irrigation, but those efforts were met with federal agents who guarded the headgates of the dam holding back the water.

According to Norton, the release is hoped to provide "a little relief to some desperate farm families during the remainder of this season," but the water supply is insufficient to service both farmland and adjacent national wildlife refuges.

Norton's announcement follows a weekend request by Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger that the U.S. Park Police leave the headgates of the irrigation canals, which had been under guard to prevent unauthorized water releases.

"We don't know the community the way that local officials know the community," said Norton. "We want to provide the appropriate level of law enforcement and support."

Some local residents resented the presence of federal law enforcement authorities, and Norton said, "We want to just insure that there are no future problems. We don't want to have any sorts of confrontations or problems."

While there have been a number of demonstrations by local residents regarding the water issue, they have been peaceful.

The announcement of the water release cames while Congress was in the midst of a partial effort to examine the situation and look for solutions.

House members traveled to the Klamath Basin for hearing earlier this summer and heard testimony from local residents and officials, but substantive action has yet to be taken by Congress.

In the Senate, the pace has been even slower. An official with the office of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee indicating that hearings on the situation in the Klamath Basin would be held sometime before October.

"I think it is definitely a positive thing, but I'm hoping it is enough to help more than just a few people," said Jim Merrilees, owner of Merrilees Oil Co. in Merrill, Ore. He fears it could cause more divisiveness if there is not enough to go around.

Determining where the 65,000 acre feet of water would go in the 200,000 acre Klamath Basin Project could be a problem. The water shortage "has cut our business down by at least half. It has taken some farmers out permanently that we won't get back," Merrilees said. Several bankruptcies and foreclosures mean that permanent damage has been done.

Negotiations, or discussions, or a water fight, as one official terms the meetings, are going on right now among managers from 15 irrigation districts that make up the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Basin Project. They were busy discussing Norton's announcement Tuesday afternoon.

The districts are in the process of finding out what it's like to apportion a minimum amount of water to a maximum amount of acres.

Jerry Pyle, assistant manager at the Tulelake Irrigation District, in Tulelake, Calif., agreed it will be difficult to decide how to parcel out the water.

"It's not much water, but if we're going to get it, we're very grateful for that." The Tulelake ID has already put in some wells to pump water to local farms, but that hasn't made up for the lack of irrigation water from the Klamath project.

"I think its great, but I wonder if it's too late. Some of our friends ? their wells have gone dry. That [water] would be a big help for them," said Michael Cheyne, former potato farmer and current employee at Merrilees Oil Company's service station.

The service station, like many other local businesses, has seen a slowdown. Farmers aren't coming in for fuel and service as often as they used to do.

The Cheyne family is still involved with farm services, so the water cutoff is affecting them, too. Sister Erika Cheyne is working for a local hay farmer and her hours have been cut. His mother, Mary Cheyne, works for Basin AgriServe, a soil and hay testing service that has seen its business slow down as well.