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Deepening Drought Triggers Historic Near-Shutdown Of The Klamath Project

Klamath Project main canal, as depicted in the 1908 Report of the Oregon Conservation Commission.
US Bureau of Reclamation

For the first time since the federal Klamath water management project in Southern Oregon was opened in 1907, the main canal supplying water to irrigators will remain closed this season.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Klamath Project, announced Wednesday that deteriorating water conditions in the Klamath Basin led to the decision to keep the Project's "A" Canal closed for the 2021 irrigation season.

The Bureau also said water that was expected to be used to flush parasites out of the Klamath River to protect threatened salmon won’t be sent downriver, either.

Deepening drought conditions mean a tentative plan for water distribution announced last month is scrapped and most of the remaining water in Upper Klamath Lake will be kept there to try to preserve two endangered sucker fish species of deep significance to the Klamath Tribes. A minimal flow is also planned from the Iron Gate Dam for threatened salmon in the river, but the Bureau says the worsening water situation may not even be adequate for those purposes.

“This year’s drought conditions are bringing unprecedented hardship to the communities of the Klamath Basin," said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton in a statement. "We have closely monitored the water conditions in the area and the unfortunate deterioration of the forecasted hydrology. This has resulted in the historic consequence of not being able to operate a majority of the Klamath Project this year ... Reclamation is dedicated to working with our water users, tribes, and partners to get through this difficult year and developing long-term solutions for the basin.”

Irrigators in the Project expressed outrage at the curtailment of water supplies they rely on for farming and ranching.

“Water users are extremely upset with what the federal government is doing to us, and with good reason,” said Klamath Water Users Association President Ben DuVal in a press release. “Taking water from Project irrigators for (Endangered Species Act) species is a failed experiment that has produced no benefit for the species.”

The KWUA says it's "working with the Biden Administration and Congressional delegations from both Oregon and California to secure funding to attempt to mitigate the harm. Currently, the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency (DRA) expects to have $15 million available, but that is far short of the need."

The Klamath Tribes say the federal government made the only decision it could under the circumstances; to curtail water for agriculture and downriver salmon. To do otherwise, they said, would come at the expense of the endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker fish, known as C’waam and Koptu in the Klamath language.

Nonetheless, the Tribes say they feel for the irrigators.

“Our people have far too much experience with being cut-off from our means of subsistence, and we wish that pain on no one,” Tribal Council Member Clay Dumont said in a press release.

The Tribes also noted that retaining water in Upper Klamath Lake to protect the suckers could hurt salmon that are crucial to downriver tribes.

“We continue to believe that it is beyond tragic that a century of mismanagement of our natural environment has culminated in tribal peoples struggling among ourselves to protect our homelands, our ways of life, and our communities,” said Dumont.

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Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.