Drought emergency declared for Klamath County

Apr 26, 2013

The heated water debate in Oregon’s Klamath Basin got a little warmer last week when Klamath County Commission and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber both declared a drought emergency. The agriculturalbased community has had unusually dry conditions the past four months, and farmers and ranchers fear the drought, along with a recent water lawsuit outcome, could put an end to many businesses in the area.

In response to a request from Klamath County, Kitzhaber issued an Executive Order declaring a state of drought emergency in the county. This declaration provides the state with additional water management tools to assist irrigators, municipalities and other water users.

“We have serious and worsening challenges with water availability in Klamath County, requiring a swift and coordinated response. I am directing state agencies and resources to help mitigate the situation and coordinate state assistance to help lessen the economic effects on farmers and ranchers in the county,” said Kitzhaber.

According to the governor’s report, precipitation has been only moderately below average in the Klamath River Basin. Warm temperatures have resulted in most of that coming in the form of rainfall instead of snow. The basin is currently at 61 percent of normal snowpack, and the chances of more snow are diminishing with every passing day. With low snow levels, streams are almost certain to drop to low levels much earlier than normal. While the state expects water supplies in the Klamath Irrigation Project to be available for most farmers, conditions in the county above Upper Klamath Lake may become significantly worse.

The emergency declaration tempers farmers and ranchers heightened water concerns following last month’s court ruling stating tribes hold “time immemorial” water rights in Klamath County, meaning they get priority over ag businesses. But for now, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation doesn’t believe there will be any water cutoffs to irrigators, at least not this year.

The bureau’s regional director, David Murillo, recently apologized to seven scientists studying the Klamath Basin water woes. The scientists were accused of producing biased work based on the needs of salmon.

The whistleblower protection organization Public Employees for Environmental Ethics had filed a formal complaint over the treatment of the scientists in the bureau’s Klamath Falls office with the Interior Department. It alleged that area manager Jason Phillips took steps to transfer the scientists and assign their work to another agency because he felt others viewed the research as biased in favor of the bureau. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor