USA – Drought in Oregon and California. The driest year in 127 years


The water crisis on the California-Oregon border turned into a disaster this week as federal regulators cut off irrigation water to farmers from a crucial reservoir and said they would not direct additional water to dying salmon downstream and to half a dozen wildlife refuges that rely on millions of migratory birds in the western United States each year.

In what could be the worst water crisis in generations, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it will not dump water into the main canal feeding the bulk of the massive Klamath Reclamation Project this season, a first for the 114-year-old irrigation system. The agency announced last month that irrigators would receive significantly less water than usual, but a worsening drought pattern means the water will instead be completely shut off, the agency said.

The entire region is in extreme or exceptional drought conditions, and Klamath County in Oregon is experiencing its driest year in 127 years, according to federal monitoring.

“This year’s drought conditions are bringing unprecedented hardship to the people of the Klamath Basin,” said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Kalimlim Tuton.

The canal, a major component of the federal Klamath Reclamation project, directs Klamath River water from Upper Klamath Lake north of the Oregon-California border to more than 52,600 acres where generations of ranchers and farmers have grown hay, alfalfa, potatoes and grazed cattle.

Only one irrigation district within the 80,940-hectare project will receive water from the Klamath River system this growing season, and supplies will be severely limited, the Klamath Water Users Association said in a statement. Some other farmers rely on water from another river, and they, too, will have a limited supply.

“It couldn’t get any worse,” Klamath Irrigation District President Ty Cleaver said. “The consequences for our family farms and these rural communities would be devastating.”

At the same time, the agency said it will not release so-called “flush flows” from the same dam at Upper Klamath Lake to raise water levels in the lower Klamath River. This river is key to the survival of coho salmon, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In favorable years, water releases help keep the river cool and turbulent, conditions that help the fragile species. The fish are central to the diet and culture of the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest federally recognized tribe.

The tribe said this week that low flows, caused by the drought and previous mismanagement of the river by a federal agency, have caused the extinction of juvenile salmon from a bacterial disease that thrives when water levels are low. Yurok tribal biologists who tested juvenile salmon in the lower Klamath River found that 70 percent of the fish were already dead in the traps used to collect them, and 97 percent were infected with a bacteria known as C. shasta.

“Right now the Klamath River is full of dead and dying fish on the Yurok Reservation,” said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “This disease will kill most of the young salmon in the Klamath, affecting fish numbers for years to come. For salmon people, the death of young salmon is absolutely the worst-case scenario.”

Irrigators, meanwhile, have reacted with disbelief to the news of the canal water shutdown. A newsletter published by the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents many farmers in the region, bore the headline, “Worst Day in Klamath Project History.” Farmers reported that they were already seeing dust storms that reduced visibility to 91 meters and worried that their wells would dry up.

About 30 protesters showed up Thursday at the head gate of the main dam to protest the shutdown and ask the irrigation district to disobey federal orders and divert water. The Herald and News reported that they were from a group called People’s Rights, a far-right organization founded by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, have declared a drought emergency in the region, and the Bureau of Reclamation has allocated $15 million in emergency aid to irrigators. Another $10 million will come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ben Duvall, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, urged his members to remain calm and not allow “the water crisis to be used for other purposes.