Farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin will benefit directly from a massive federal water spending bill that authorizes more than $6 billion to improve the nation’s ports, dams, harbors and other infrastructure.
Tucked into the America’s Water and Infrastructure Act of 2018 is a section that deals specifically with the Klamath Project, a sprawling 200,000-acre irrigation system that serves more than 1,200 family farms and ranches in southern Oregon and northern California.
Congress passed the bill on Oct. 10, which includes up to $10 million annually for the Klamath Project to help agricultural producers withstand water shortages and improve efficiency.
Scott White, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the money could pay for pumping groundwater or idling farmland during drought years — like the basin experienced in 2018 — or project improvements like lining irrigation canals to prevent water loss.
“If we have $10 million to use for addressing (water) supply versus demand on an annual basis, then during good water years we could be using that money for ways to improve our efficiency and make those drought years that much easier,” White said.
The Klamath Project already faces a strain on water supplies to balance the needs of farms with the needs of endangered fish species. Earlier this year, the Klamath Tribes sued the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to hold more water in Upper Klamath Lake for endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers.
Meanwhile, the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes also successfully sued government agencies to send more water down the Klamath River to wash away a salmon-killing parasite known as C. shasta. The lawsuits delayed the start of the 2018 irrigation season by several months, making it harder for farmers and ranchers to know what to plant ahead of time.
White said provisions in the America’s Water and Infrastructure Act were originally part of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, a $1 billion long-term agreement that would have also included the removal of four dams on the lower Klamath River. The KBRA failed to pass Congress before expiring in 2015.
Three years later, White said they are pleased to see lawmakers take action.
“It’s not going to solve all the issues here, but it’s a good start,” he said.
In addition to the $10 million in drought relief, the bill also makes it easier for farmers to convey groundwater through the Klamath Project canals during water shortages, and instructs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to recommend ways the basin can reduce electricity costs, which in some cases have ballooned by 2,000 percent over the last decade.
Affordable power is tied directly to project efficiency, White explained. The more electricity costs, the less farmers may use technology designed to conserve water, such as center pivots versus flood irrigation.
“There are many reasons why affordable power is so important for water efficiencies on farm, and on the project,” White said.
Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation also cheered provisions to assist Klamath Basin agriculture, an industry worth about $557 million. Rep. Greg Walden said he was proud to work with his Senate colleagues to get the legislation across the finish line.
“This measure will help ensure our farmers, ranchers, and water users are able to survive this challenging water year and will help prepare us for severe drought conditions we may face in the near future,” said Walden, a Republican.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley agreed the bill is a win for the basin’s agricultural economy.
“Through drought, wildfires, and other extreme challenges, Klamath Basin irrigators have shown they’re committed to working collaboratively with the many water stakeholders, and it is imperative that the federal government step up and do all it can to assist,” Merkley said. “This authorization will allow stakeholders to access much-needed resources as they work to address water supply challenges in the region.”