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Commissioners say Klamath Basin communities still need water for dry wells, canal upkeep

 A dry water transport canal in Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
Erik Neumann
A dry water transport canal in Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

County officials in the Klamath Basin are appealing to federal water regulators for help with hundreds of wells that ran dry last summer. They’re also trying to fix empty, cracked water canals to avoid flooding.

Commissioners in three counties in Oregon and California are trying to get water released from Upper Klamath Lake six weeks earlier than usual to refill water delivery canals in the basin’s network of canals, dikes and infrastructure known as the Klamath Project.

That would help refill about 300 domestic wells that are still dry in Klamath County after last summer’s drought. It would also slowly saturate the dry, cracked water canals that run through the City of Klamath Falls to prevent flooding if water is released too quickly this spring.

“Really what the plan would do is A: Provide the groundwater recharge that is critical to my community, and B: Do so in a way that does not put my community in danger,” says Derek DeGroot, vice chair of the Klamath County commissioners.

Commissioners from Klamath County in Oregon and Siskiyou and Modoc counties in California sent a letter to Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation earlier this month.

“Families were left without water for drinking, cooking, or basic sanitation. The temporary efforts to provide alternative water are insufficient and unsustainable,” the letter reads.

It continues about dry canals, “The unprecedented zero allocation and subsequent drying up of this critical delivery infrastructure, last used nearly two years ago, has degraded the canal so that there is the potential for canal failure or other system failure, posing a great risk to nearby residents and their property.”

The Klamath Project was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1906. DeGroot says the canals have never gone without water for so long.

“That’s what’s raising some of these really serious concerns,” he says.

DeGroot says current hydrology indicates there will be enough water available to maintain levels in Upper Klamath Lake that are required for the Lost River and shortnose sucker, two species of fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.