Epic drought means water crisis on Oregon-California border

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FILE - In this March 2, 2020, file photo, farmer Ben DuVal with his wife, Erika, and their daughters, Hannah, third from left, and Helena, fourth from left, stand near a canal for collecting run-off water near their property in Tulelake, Calif. Federal officials announced Wednesday that farmers who rely on a massive irrigation project spanning the Oregon-California border will get 8% of the deliveries they need amid a severe drought. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Hundreds of farmers who rely on a massive irrigation project that spans the Oregon-California border learned Wednesday they will get a tiny fraction of the water they need amid the worst drought in decades, as federal regulators attempt to balance the needs of agriculture against federally threatened and endangered fish species that are central to the heritage of several tribes.

Oregon’s governor said the prolonged drought in the region has the “full attention of our offices,” and she is working with congressional delegates, the White House and federal agencies to find relief for those affected.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation briefed irrigators, tribes and environmental groups early Wednesday after delaying the decision a month. The federally owned irrigation project will draw 33,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake, which farmers said was roughly 8% of what they need in such a dry year. Water deliveries will also start June 1, two months later than usual, for the 1,400 irrigators who farm the 225,000 acres (91,000 hectares).

“The simple fact is it just hasn’t rained or snowed this year. We all know how dry our fields are, and the rest of the watersheds are in the same boat. ... There is no easy way to say this,” Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, told several dozen irrigators who gathered in Klamath Falls on Wednesday morning to hear the news.

“We all know what this is going to mean to our farms, our families and our community as a whole. For some of us, it may mean we’re not in business anymore next year.”

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement that Oregon water regulators are reviewing a plan to allow irrigators to pump more than twice as much groundwater per acre for their crops as allowed last year when drought reduced water supplies to a lesser extent.

“My message to the people of the Klamath Basin today is this: You are not alone,” said Brown, who has also declared a drought emergency in the region.

The Bureau of Reclamation set aside $15 million in immediate aid for irrigators, and irrigation districts at Wednesday's meeting said they could expect some additional water from two other reservoirs and groundwater wells. Another $10 million will be available for drought assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, following the release of a water operations plan for the Klamath Reclamation Project, according to a news release from Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, with U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz.