American Land Conservancy offers plan for Klamath Basin
By Jeff Barnard
Associated Press Writer
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- The American Land Conservancy offered a plan Thursday for buying up land and water rights in the Klamath Basin that includes a major new site for storing water to balance the needs of farming against fish and wildlife.
Reducing demand for irrigation water, increasing storage and improving overall water quality would assure future water supplies for farming as well as fish and wildlife, even in drought years, said Rich McIntyre, the owner of a Klamath Basin fishing lodge working for the conservancy.
A key part of the proposal is buying lands around Swan Lake outside Klamath Falls to store up to 100,000 acre feet of water, which amounts to nearly a quarter of the annual needs of the Klamath Project federal irrigation system. Wells could supply 60 percent in dry years, McIntyre said.
The proposal comes as farmers, Indian tribes, fish and wildlife advocates, federal agencies and others are working through a mediation process seeking long-term solutions to the basin's water problems and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is working on a legislative package.
Wyden believes that a lot can be accomplished if all parties in the basin come together, said Wyden chief of staff Josh Kardon.
"But if agriculture, fishing interests, environmentalists and the tribes are unable to come to agreement, the chances of delivering the types of sums that many envision are not good," Kardon said.
Due to drought conditions and new demands for threatened and endangered fish, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this year had to shut off most irrigation deliveries to the 220,000 acres of farmland served by the Klamath Project. The project serves about half the basin's farmlands.
The action taken under the Endangered Species Act marked the first time since the project began offering irrigation water in 1907 that the interests of coastal salmon fishermen and Indian tribes have won out over those of farmers.
The water was held back to maintain elevated levels in Upper Klamath Lake for endangered shortnosed suckers and Lost River suckers, a sacred and traditional food of the Klamath Tribes, and to boost flows in the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon. The Yurok Tribe has depended on declining runs of Klamath River salmon, as have commercial fishermen in Northern California and southern Oregon.
The plan got no immediate response from the Klamath Water Users Association, made up of farmers fighting to overcome Endangered Species Act restrictions on irrigation supplies.
Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resource Council, a conservation group, said cleaning up water laden with agricultural residues was just as important as storing more water.
American Land Conservancy has options to buy 8,000 acres of the 12,000 acres being used to grow hay and pasture around Swan Lake outside Klamath Falls. A few miles of canal and pumping would be required to send the water into the Klamath Project.
Fred Fahner, a Tulelake, Calif., farmer working with the conservancy on the plan, said projects such as this one are need to keep farming alive in the face of changing demands for a limited supply of water.
The conservancy also proposed flooding leased farmlands once covered by Tule Lake on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge to store 65,000 acre feet of water for the refuges. Farmers leasing those lands would be able to farm on other private lands bought through the conservancy.
Due to strong local opposition to increasing federal lands in the basin, 22,000 acres of farmland that would be bought outright around Tulelake, Calif., would be held in trust, perhaps by the Tulelake Irrigation District, for private sale in 10 years.
American Land Conservancy also proposed buying water easements on 20,000 acres on the Klamath Project, which could be used for dry land farming or irrigated with well water.
The land and water right purchases would reduce demand on the Klamath Project by about 67,000 acre feet, or about 17 percent. The extra storage would increase supplies by about 41 percent.
The conservancy also proposed the federal government spend $50 million on restoring riparian zones along rivers in the upper basin and marshes around Upper Klamath Lake to improve overall water quality in the basin and increase fish and wildlife habitat.