Tale of two seasons, then and now: Basin farmers, ranchers hope 2003 won't be another 2001 -- but the weather doesn't look promising

March 9, 2003

By Dylan Darling

Herald and News

Klamath Falls, Oregon


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Walking across the cow pasture behind his home south of Klamath Falls, Larry Kliewer squints his eyes to keep dust from blowing in.

It's dry in the pasture. It's dry in the mountains. The water supply in the Basin is low.

"It sure looks a lot like 2001," he says.

As spring approaches, Kliewer's observation is topic No. 1 at feed stores, supply shops and cafes in Malin, Merrill and Tulelake.

Kliewer owns 108 acres and rents about another 500 to grow alfalfa and raise cattle. He recalls that in the spring of 2001, there were rumor that farmers might not get water.

"I thought it was a bunch of talk," he said. "But it came to reality real quick."

The events of 2001 led to numerous changes around the Basin.

A fish screen and headgates project is nearing completion at the entrance of the A Canal. The replacement for the headgates where farmers staged a summer-long protest is designed to route endangered sucker fish back into Upper Klamath Lake and keep them from being trapped in irrigation canals.

The Bureau is working on a water bank, paying farmers to idle pasture and hay land, and paying farmers who irrigate from wells rather than with Klamath Reclamation Project water.

Water in the Klamath Basin continues to be the subject of lawsuits, but new ones have been added to those still pending.

But the weather and the water conditions look a lot like those of March 2001.

On Friday, the Bureau reported the level of Upper Klamath Lake at 4142.53 feet above sea level. On the same date in 2001 the lake was at 4142.01 feet above sea level.

The mountains have only patches of white, and the snowpack is 56 percent of normal. In 2001 it was 59 percent of normal.

A difference between the two years is the amount of water in Clear Lake and Gerber reservoir, said Jim Bryant, operations manager for the Bureau's Klamath Area Office.

The two reservoirs are important sources of irrigation water. Bryant said that in March 2001, they had about twice as much water as they do this March.

Clear Lake is at 108,000 acre-feet, compared to 240,000 two years ago. For Gerber Lake, the numbers are 27,000 acre-feet and 35,000 acre-feet.

In an average year irrigators need 35,000 acre-feet from each reservoir. Bryant said Clear Lake should have enough, but it will be tight at Gerber Reservoir.

While irrigators can look at the numbers involving reservoir storage, snowpack level and predicted streamflow, they don't know how much project water they will actually get until the Bureau comes out with its 2003 operations plan.

The plan will be out in early April after the Natural Resources Conservation Service releases its April streamflow forecasts.

Bryant said he couldn't offer any hints as to what it will say. "It's just far too early to pin that down with assurance," he said.

Michael Byrne, a rancher who lives near Tulelake, said irrigators are counting the days.

"It's very frustrating because there is no clear-cut message as to how much water we will get," he said. "It's pretty hard to plan when you don't know what you will have."

Byrne is one of the plaintiffs in a compensation suit against the U.S. government, one of the new legal actions joining older legal actions such as the adjudication proceeding that seeks to quantify claims to Klamath Basin water and a number of suits filed by environmentalists and downstream fishing and California groups.

William Ganong, the local attorney helping with the case, which is being handled by the Washington D.C.-based law firm of Marzulla & Marzulla, said he hears concerns about the future from project water users every time he meets with them about the lawsuit.

"There is a high level of anxiety," he said. "They know what happened in 2001 and how much that hurt. You can't help but look at the bare mountains and worry about what could happen this year."

The worry isn't limited to project water users.

Bob Gasser, co-owner of Basin Fertilizer and Chemicals in Merrill, said his business depends completely on farmers. In 2001 it lost 75 percent of its sales in the project area because of the water cutoff.

In 2001 irrigators expected there might be a cutback but not a complete cutoff.

"We never expected anything more than 20 percent, and when we got zero it was unbelievable," he said.

Now, he said, there's more pessimism and less trust of federal agencies.

He said banks aren't giving loans to farmers and ranchers because no one knows if they will have water for the whole season.

As bankers read the weather reports they could become more skeptical.

George Taylor, state climatologist, said the winter of 2001 was one of the driest ever in the Basin, and this winter has been quite dry as well.

By early March 2001 the Basin had gotten 51 percent of its seasonal precipitation. As of Friday, precipitation was 72 percent of normal -- there's been more precipitation in rain, which doesn't get stored for use later in the summer.

Taylor said the snowpack was actually pretty good until January, when an unseasonably warm month melted much of it quickly.

But Taylor said it is difficult to say whether this year will end up have weather similar to 2001.

"It's as hard to compare two years sometimes as it is to compare two people," he said.

If the Basin could get storms like those that occurred in Central Oregon over the last couple of days, then the snowpack could be revived, but that wouldn't change the nature of the Basin.

"The real problem is that most of the precipitation falls in winter," Taylor said, "and most of the demand in summer."

The lack of precipitation in the winter of 2001 made the Bureau concerned early, said Gary Baker, Bureau project manager in the Klamath Area Office.

"It just evolved over several months there," he said. "We kept hoping for normal precipitation, but it didn't happen."

Realizing it had an impending problem, the Bureau tried to reduce the demand for water.

About 125 farmers were paid $96 dollars an acre to keep their land idle, Baker said. In all the Bureau paid to have 15,000 acres idled.

The Bureau also bought water from people who had wells, totaling 65,000 acre-feet for $1.7 million from about 25 different people, he said.

But by April, the Bureau cut off water to irrigators to meet lake level requirements for endangered shortnosed and Lost River suckers.

Late in the summer after dramatic protests by farmers and their advocates, the Bush Administration restored the water, more than 50,000 acre-feet worth.

This year, the Bureau is again looking at idling land and paying for groundwater, but this time it will pay irrigators to use groundwater instead of project water and both programs are part of the 2003 Pilot Water Bank.

The bank was unveiled last week and calls for 12,000 acres to be idled, with the Bureau paying $187.50 per acre for a farmer to do so. It also calls for 25,000 acre-feet of project water to be replaced by groundwater at $75 per acre. In all the Bureau plans to spend $4 million to get a bank of 50,000 acre-feet of water.

Bob Flowers, was grows alfalfa and raises cattle on about 1,000 acres, said he had to cut the acreage he works in half because of the 2001 water cutoff.

Flowers isn't a fan of the water bank.

"It's like me giving you a Band-Aid when you cut your arm off," he said.

He said he wakes every morning up wondering if he is going to have water for the summer.

"It's looking scary," he said.

Steve Kandra, who grows alfalfa, cereal grain and row crops on about 960 acres that straddle Oregon-California border, said farmers have more tools to get through the season, but the way the weather looks the growing season still might be brief.

"A short season is not fatal, but you certainly will take a financial hit," he said.

While alfalfa growers can get a hay cutting or two with early water, row crop growers fear a short season. For them the last weeks of the irrigation season are when their crops need water the most, said David Cacka.

"It's the last 30 days in the growing season when you make your crop," he said.

Cacka knows potatoes well. He grew them in the Basin for three decades, but he got out of them after 2001.

Now, he grows mostly alfalfa on 390 acres near Malin.

Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, said his district ended up having short seasons in the dry years of 1992 and 1994.

"Some way we are going to make it work," he said. "We have always made it work -- except for 2001. That was the one year it didn't work."