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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Science Behind Klamath Basin Irrigation Water Will Be Updated

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NOAA Fisheries

The scientific foundation for decisions about how much water goes to hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland in the Klamath Basin is up for review. This week the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced they will fund a new science initiative to study the contested water along the Oregon-California border.

Reclamation announced they will invest $1.2 million in new science for the Klamath Project, which supplies the basin’s farmland with water.

The money will fund studies of stream flows, and research habitat, disease and survival of Chinook and endangered Coho salmon in the Klamath River.

Mark Johnson is the deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farmers. He says this is a chance to update 20-year-old science, which they hope will result in more water for irrigators.

“From our perspective we would just like to see more transparency and more objective science,” Johnson says. “It seems to be pretty one-sided right now.”

Punishing drought conditions in 2020 left irrigators with about 40% of their usual water allocation, according to Johnson.

The Bureau of Reclamation announcement was also welcomed by Glen Spain with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, a group that supports keeping water in the river for salmon habitat.

Spain says they’re supportive of any science-based decision making.

“But it isn’t going to tell them anything that the science doesn’t already tell us,” Spain says. “And that is that the single biggest problem in the basin is that it is grossly over-appropriated. There’s too much water promised to too many people.”

Spain says the current demands on the water will only intensify with climate change.

Members of the Klamath Tribe view water levels of Upper Klamath Lake as important for habitat of the culturally important and endangered sucker fish. Representatives of the Tribe did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Johnson with the Klamath Water Users Association, the new body of scientific research will not affect long-standing water rights in the basin or minimum water levels required for fish survival under the Endangered Species Act.