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Feds cut water off to Klamath farmers for remainder of season

An OPB file photo of the drought-parched Klamath Basin of Oregon and California.
An OPB file photo of the drought-parched Klamath Basin of Oregon and California.

Federal officials announced on Thursday that water will be cut off to farmers in the Klamath Basin for the rest of the irrigation season.

The announcement from the federal Bureau of Reclamation was addressed to three irrigation districts in the farming communities along the Oregon-California border. It marks the end of available water that can be diverted from Upper Klamath Lake, the large body of water that feeds farms and several National Wildlife Refuges along the state line.

According to Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, residents are frustrated because of mixed messages about how much water they would get this year.

“There’s been just quite a lot of changing of information and expectations created and changed that have made this extremely troubling and not well received,” Simmons said.

Demands on water in the Klamath Basin are widespread, whether or not the region is in a severe drought.

Water levels are maintained in Upper Klamath Lake to protect several species of endangered sucker fish. Water is also released from the lake to flow downriver, to protect habitat for endangered coho salmon. Several Native American tribes that live near Klamath Lake and the Klamath River also possess senior water rights, giving them priority access.

The same water is also in demand for a series of National Wildlife Refuges for migratory birds that are located along the Oregon-California border. Those refuges often go without water during years of low precipitation.

Simmons says at 62,000 acre feet, the water allotment for the 2022 growing season was only about 20% of what farmers wanted. But a wet spring led to hopes that irrigation supplies would be extended.

In a written response from the three irrigation districts, which make up nearly all the Klamath Project agricultural uses, Tulelake Irrigation District Manager Brad Kirby warned that the water shutdown could translate to crops dying prematurely this season.

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.