Farmers and ranchers facing a second year of water shutoffs in Southern Oregon's drought-ridden Klamath Basin could benefit from new federal aid announced Friday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will provide $4.5 million in 2014. That’s part of the $11 million it has committed to spending on Klamath Basin projects over the next five years.
A recent agreement between upper basin ranchers and the Klamath Tribes has been hailed by supporters as an important step toward ending generations-long conflicts over how much water should be withdrawn and who should get it.
Upper Basin irrigators who signed on to that agreement get first priority for available funds. The USDA will support landowners in finding ways to use less water and restore streamside pastures.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., notes the severe drought bearing down on the Klamath Basin needs.
“We are very concerned about another major drought,” Merkley said Friday in an interview. “We had a worst-ever drought in 2001, a worst-ever drought in 2010, a worst-ever drought in 2013 — so this could be the fourth worst-ever drought.”
Merkley argues that the funding comes at an important time economically and ecologically.
“The Klamath Basin is a phenomenal agricultural basin but the water was way overcommitted, so at this point the water has to be restructured enormously,” he said.
“The water wars have been going on for many, many decades. This is an effort to say there is a win-win path that can create a sustainable economic vision for the future but also a huge restoration of the river system that has been so seriously depleted.”
Merkley staffers say the successful upper Basin agreement paved the way for Friday’s aid announcement.
With the newfound collaboration between tribes and irrigators, federal legislation is expected to be introduced by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“This is making better use of water in the Klamath so everyone has a chance to survive,” said Wyden press secretary Tom Towslee.
Towslee said the USDA funding is intended to help ground- and surface-water conservation.
Klamath Basin landowners interested in participating have until May 30 to apply for the funds; the USDA will host related workshops in coming weeks.
The federal legislation intended to resolve the Klamath Basin water crises will ask Congress for $495 million in federal spending over 10 years for restoration work and to provide economic assistance for the Klamath Tribes, including money for a new tree farm. The removal of four Klamath River hydroelectric dams owned and operated by PacifiCorp would also be authorized.
In the meantime, a second year of water shutoffs are still expected this summer for upper Klamath Basin ranchers.
Similarly challenging situations are expected for federally protected salmon in the Klamath River system and the area’s wildlife refuges.
Some conservation groups argue that it’s necessary to reduce water demand in the Klamath Basin and to distribute water for the refuges beyond what the agreements provide.