Farmers hurt by ESA face water quality challenge
At more than 4,100 feet above sea level, the Upper Klamath Lake north of Klamath Falls, OR, is the largest freshwater body in Oregon. The 160-square-mile lake already is naturally high in phosphorous and other nutrients because of historic volcanic activity in the region. There is pressure to reduce the phosphorous content and improve the water quality.
About 39 percent of all phosphorous loading into Upper Klamath Lake comes from external sources, according to information from Oregon State University. The remaining 61 percent is naturally occurring.
But Upper Klamath Lake—and the farmers who depend on it for their crops— are now caught in a national effort to improve water quality demanded by the Clean Water Act (CWA) and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Farmers, who for the last decade have felt the effects of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) limiting the quantity of water in their area, could be required to undertake what they believe will be expensive and somewhat unrealistic steps to improve water quality.
The farmers in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California are being pressured to reduce pollution runoff of agriculture nutrients. There has been a national effort to require states to implement total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, of pollutants to meet safe water quality standards in impaired waters. Impaired waters, such as Upper Klamath Lake, are those that the CWA has ordered to be listed and have plans developed to help them since they are “too polluted or otherwise degraded to meet the water quality standards set by states, territories or authorized tribes,” according to EPA.
The TMDL for uplands in the Upper Klamath Lake watershed calls for a reduction of 18 percent in external phosphorous loading. But just 4 percent of total external loads come from agriculture pumping; this drives fears that the burden to improve water quality could fall disproportionately on agriculture’s shoulders.
“It’s sort of the gorilla in the room,” said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA). KWUA represents U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Project irrigators who draw their water from Upper Klamath Lake north of Klamath Falls. The project serves 210,000 acres of cropland. “The headlines and the focus are on ESA and water quantity, but this water quality thing is a big, big deal.”
Other parts of the country have also been dealing with the water quality issue. TM- DLs are being established across the country, including the Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast and the historic Lake Champlain in the northeast.
However, TMDLs could hit Klamath Basin farmers particularly hard, and farmers fear it’s yet more federal bureaucracy that is squeezing agriculture out of the area.
An ESA-induced 2001 water shutoff in the Klamath Basin led to financial and personal losses for more than 1,200 farm families. The shut-off came in response to concern about the effects of low water levels on three endangered fish species.
Though TMDLs likely will require farmers to reduce phosphorous runoff, Addington said he questions whether the phosphorous can be reduced enough to make a difference to the water.
Addington stressed that the water is “poor when we get it, we divert it, we run it over fields, which, by the way plants use phosphorus, so in a lot of times of the year, we actually take phosphorous out of the water. The concern is it’s one thing if we’re talking about spending a whole bunch of money to fix a problem that we created. But you’re talking about trying to fix a naturally-occurring problem.”
Demands on the basin’s water resources are welldocumented. Previous reports have shown how the enforcement of the ESA has hurt agriculture and the general economy in the Klamath Basin.
ESA was the impetus for an effort by environmentalists, irrigators, tribes, government officials and others to protect three endangered fish species by requiring water levels to be maintained in the Upper Klamath Lake.
Project irrigators draw water from the lake, pump it around to users, and put it back into Klamath River.
“But now if they say they don’t like the quality of the water you’re putting back in ... our concern is that the United States will say OK, we’ll put in a $100 million water treatment facility so we’ll treat that water before it goes back to Klamath River,” Addington said. “Well, guess who pays for that? It’s not the taxpayer, it’s project farmers here.
“What it really gets down to is are we making the water worse. And the answer, in my opinion, is no. So the water we get, the water quality before we ever divert, is terrible from a fish standpoint. It’s just high in nutrients, it always has been and it always will be.”
In 2002, about 33,000 salmon were killed in the Lower Klamath River in northern California. Warm water temperatures during a salmon run about 160 miles downstream from the river’s dams were blamed. Environmentalists and others seized the moment to make a case for the need to improve water quality.
Yreka, CA, farmer and rancher Rex Cozzalio said the salmon run actually recorded one of the best overall returns that season. However, there was a known methamphetamine dump in the river at the time and the kill was finished before the water was tested.
John Menke, a retired professor from the University of California-Davis, and a rancher in the Scott Valley in northern California, said he questions the TMDL science being used in the region.
The TMDL for the Shasta River in Scott Valley in California, for example, is being implemented to help improve water quality and salmon runs. However, Menke said there is no data that shows the endangered Coho salmon ever made runs in the Shasta River, or that
higher water temperatures are caused by anything other than naturally warm water in the region.
That’s important because the ground water may never allow low enough temperatures for Coho salmon summer rearing, Menke said.
Although state officials are aware of the naturally high phosphorous conditions in the basin, Addington said litigation drives TMDLs in Oregon and California.
In February 2009, environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force California water officials to implement TMDLs for 17 water bodies in northern California.
“So you have environmental groups that sue the government and say you’re not cleaning the water fast enough under the Clean Water Act,” Addington said, adding that regulators have only so much time to do a TMDL.
“The regulators, their priority is to meet the courtordered timeline, not to do it right. And that’s unfortunate. The consequences are going to be significant.” — DTN