Warm temps melt snow too quickly
By JOEL ASCHBRENNER
H&N Staff Reporter
May 1, 2012
The Klamath Basin water situation this year is, for lack of a better term, fluid.
Projections show the Klamath Reclamation Project will receive nearly 90 percent of its annual allotment of water, with groundwater pumping and land idling programs likely to cover the rest.
But a recent warm spell melted snowpack, sending potential irrigation water downriver and leaving farmers concerned that there won’t be water left for their crops later in the summer growing season.
“That hot streak last week, if it would have stayed like that we would have been in trouble,” said Tulelake farmer Otto Huffman, who spent much of Monday planting potatoes.
Forecasts call for high temperatures in the 50s this week, down from the 70s in recent weeks. But cool weather is a double-edged sword, as it helps retain snowpack but can stunt crop growth, said Hollie Cannon, executive director of the Klamath Water and Power Agency.
Irrigators want to see snowpack melt slowly throughout the summer so water is available late in the growing season, Cannon said. But this winter, which started bone-dry and ended snowy and rainy, was far from ideal.
“The snowpack didn’t have time to set up in the mountains and become dense — become ice, essentially — and with this unseasonably warm weather, the runoff becomes quicker,” he said.
It’s all about timing when it comes to Klamath Basin water. Biological opinions for endangered coho salmon in the Klamath River dictate that certain amounts of water in Upper Klamath Lake, a primary irrigation source, must be sent downriver between April and June 1. The amounts are based on a variable scale; the more water in the lake, the more that has to be sent down the river.
Outflows from Upper Klamath Lake have increased from about 300 cubic-feet per second a month ago, to about 3,100 cubic-feet per second Sunday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Irrigators like Huffman say the biological opinions send too much water downriver, that they are flawed, based on how much water would flow downriver only in the wettest years.
“There’s plenty of water in the lake for us to irrigate with if they didn’t have to give it away,” he said.
Opinions differ at the other end of the Klamath River.
The amount, and more importantly the timing, of water sent downriver is critical to keeping salmon and the salmon fishing industry healthy, said Glenn Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations.
“It means jobs and dollars in communities,” he said about healthy river flows. “It means people can pay their mortgages.”
Both Huffman and Spain advocate more water storage in the Upper Klamath Basin.
While plans to build water storage have been deemed too costly, some storage capacity already exists. The Bureau of Reclamation is using Agency Lake this year to store up to 27,000 acre feet of water above Upper Klamath Lake until it is needed for irrigation, said Kevin Moore, spokesperson with the Bureau’s Klamath Basin area office.
If there’s enough water to go around, both the farming and fishing industries could enjoy profitable years. Commodity prices for many of the Basin’s staple crops have soared in the past year and large returns of chinook salmon are predicted for the Klamath and Sacramento rivers.
There is more than enough irrigation water for the Klamath Reclamation Project now, but a shortage is expected in July, August and September.
The Project, which annually draws about 400,000 acre-feet of water, will be short about 50,000 acre-feet, said Hollie Cannon, executive director of the Klamath Water and Power Agency.
To mitigate the shortage, KWAPA plans to pay irrigators to pump 40,000 acre-feet of groundwater and to leave some fields dry late in the year. A more severe water shortage following an unusually dry winter was narrowly avoided.
“We were really fortunate that March was so wet, otherwise we could have been looking at a year similar to 2010,” Cannon said, referring to the most recent drought, when irrigators pumped more than 100,000 acre-feet of ground water and left more than 40,000 acres dry.
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