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Water managers could withhold Klamath County drought permits this year

The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen water crises.
Devan Schwartz
Groundwater in the Klamath Basin has dropped by 20-30 feet over the last three years alone.

The permits, also called Emergency Use permits, allow users like farmers and ranchers who don’t have groundwater rights to access that water during an emergency drought declaration when above-ground sources, like rivers and lakes, are too low.

Not issuing the drought permits could have a significant impact on agriculture in the region if farmers don’t have access to irrigation water.

"In the event that an emergency drought is declared for Klamath County, it's very unlikely that the agency is going to be issuing many, if any, drought permits at all," said Ivan Gall, the Interim Deputy Director for Water Management at the Oregon Water Resources Department.

He said issuing the permits will depend on precipitation levels in the coming months. The department usually issues 40 to 50 drought permits per year.

A spokesperson for the Klamath Water Users Association, which lobbies for the basin's agriculture community, did not respond to an interview request.

Groundwater levels in the Klamath Basin have declined significantly in recent years. OWRD said the water level dropped by 20 to 30 feet over the last three years alone, so additional access is unsustainable.

Emergency drought declarations have been made in Klamath County in 16 of the past 31 years.

Even above-average snowpack in the region this winter isn’t enough to replenish the reduced groundwater level in the Klamath Basin, Gall said.

"For us to, in essence, reverse the groundwater level trend that we've seen and come out of this multi-year drought would take a very wet cycle for multiple years in a row of well above average precipitation. And the likelihood of that occurring is very low," he said.

Not doing so this year would primarily affect agriculture, Gall said — water users who "who don't have primary or supplemental groundwater rights, and they're dependent upon a drought declaration and the agency issuing emergency drought permits for their use."

He said there would not be further domestic well restrictions, and "landowners that have the existing groundwater rights are not impacted by this decision."

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.