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EarthFix

Another Drought Year Promises To Test Klamath Basin

With a drought on the horizon, the Klamath Basin prepares for the worst.

March 9, 2018

Shavon Haynes tromps into a small, quiet clearing in the woods on Mount Ashland.  He drops a black pack into the knee-deep snow. He pulls out a snow sampler, two lengths of worn metal pipe and screws them together.

“I’ve dubbed it Excalibur, because when it’s put together it looks like a large sword. And Excalibur is the only sword I really know the name of,” he says.

Haynes works as the Jackson County Watermaster. He plunges Excalibur into a fresh patch of snow, calling out a measurement to his colleague Ben Thorpe.

Jackson County Watermaster Shavon Haynes prepares to weigh a snow core sample in Southern Oregon. Credit: Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

“So we got a depth of 29 and a half,” Haynes says.

And he and Thorpe weigh the snow core they pull out to figure out the density – or just how much water it contains, which is also called the “snow water equivalent.”

 “It’s definitely less than last year,” Haynes says of the snowpack they find at the four sites on Mount Ashland. “And less than normal.”

This late-season snow near the Oregon-California border will feed the Klamath Basin. It’s been welcome, but the snowpack is still less than half of what an average winter brings.  And that’s no good for the region.

Writing on the wall

Every year about this time the Pacific Northwest really starts paying attention to the amount of snow in the mountains. It lets us know how much water we’ll have this summer for fish, agriculture and people.

Snow falls on Mt. Ashland.  Snow here drains into both the Klamath and Rogue basins. Credit: Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

Most of Washington has had above average snow this winter, but the situation gets more dicey the farther south you travel.

About half of Oregon is experiencing moderate drought already, and it looks like the Klamath Basin is once again going to be a focal point of water conflict in the West.

“The writing, I think at this point, is on the wall. There are going to be shortages this year,"said Scott White, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. "Even if it kept snowing and snowing and snowing, it’s going to stop and there’s not going to be enough water to go around.”

Drought is not new here in the Klamath Basin. There’s been a governor-declared drought 10 of the past 16 years.

But White says this year is different. The federal programs that subsidized farmers to idle land and pump groundwater in the past are gone. And a bill that would have given irrigation districts more flexibility to move water around didn’t get play this session in the Oregon Legislature.

“My message to the public was ‘hey, you guys really need to start thinking about what you’re going to be doing on farm,’” White said. “What are your operations going to look like this year? You need to be thinking about this on your own. Don’t plan on getting saved.”

At a meeting in late February, Klamath County commissioners did what they could. They voted to ask the state for yet another drought declaration estimating they’re facing a half billion dollars in losses.

“Hopefully we can help get some government assistance to keep our agricultural community alive in 2018,” said Commissioner Donnie Boyd at the meeting.

Irrigation infrastructure on the Klamath Project. Credit: Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

Commissioners said they expected to hear from the state in mid-March, which could open up some state relief programs.  After a state issues a drought declaration, then the federal government considers the request, potentially opening up even more aid for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin.   

Fish need water, too

Of course, in the Klamath Basin, agriculture is only part of the story. The other big piece is fish.

Klamath River salmon runs continue to struggle. Disease and high water temperatures linked to low flows are considered a factor.

A petition from the Karuk Tribe and the Salmon River Restoration Council has prompted federal mangers to consider whether to add the river’s spring chinook to the endangered species list. The Klamath River coho salmon already listed.  

Last year a 200-mile chunk of the West Coast off Oregon and California closed to commercial salmon fishing because of low counts.  This year’s ocean salmon forecast is better, but the fishery could still be limited. Catch allowances will be determined in early April.   

Higher up in the basin, the Klamath Tribes have given notice they intend to sue federal agencies for not adequately protecting two species of endangered sucker fish. They’re demanding more water be held in Upper Klamath Lake.    

 “The current trajectory for our fish, basically they’ll be going extinct in the next five, ten years unless something very serious takes place,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes.

This year will be the first bad water year since2015, when a long-negotiated water-sharing compromise fell apart after Congress failed to authorize it.

Oregon politicians are pushing the federal government to step up. But in the meantime, without the common ground of a compromise deal on the table, Gentry says relationships between farmers, tribes and other water users have become strained. And this year’s drought promises to test the Klamath Basin in a way it hasn’t been tested in decades. 

 “It’s kind of pushed us in a corner,” he said. “And that’s one thing we have in common, we’re all pushed into a corner.”

A juvenile chinook salmon from the Klamath River shows signs of parasitic infection and disease. Credit: Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix


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Ben Thorpe (left) and Shavon Haynes measure the snowpack on Mt. Ashland.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

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