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Too Much Irrigation, Not Enough Water

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is another installment in our ongoing series of features regarding the water crisis in the Klamath River Basin

Jeanne Anderson grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and became a nurse. In the mid-1980s she married John Anderson, who had grown up on a farm in nearby Tulelake, California. Jeanne retired after 20 years of nursing and taught herself rudimentary veterinary skills to use on the cattle they were raising. She and John raised cattle on 3,300 acres they bought just across the border in Oregon. They also ran cattle on the 156 acres just below their house on the hillside on the south side of the upper Klamath Basin. They raised hay, grain, and cattle down in the basin, on 700 acres they own and on 350 acres they lease from John's parents.

A few years back they put in sugar beets, but the sugar company left. Next they tried spearmint, raising it for the oil. Mint is an expensive crop to get started -- it costs about $1,000 an acre to establish a crop. They put in 150 acres. This was in 2000. The next year, during a punishing drought, their irrigation water was turned off to reserve more water for endangered lake fish and threatened coho salmon. The mint plants, being shallow-rooted, died. Insurance reimbursed them $8,000. Something must change, they realized. They couldn't survive in such an unstable situation.

The same was true throughout the drought-prone Klamath Basin -- there simply isn't enough water in most years to irrigate more than 450,000 acres of farmland, maintain a healthy watershed for salmon and other fish, and provide wetland habitat for the huge numbers of waterfowl, bald eagles, and other birds that visit this region each year.

The Andersons set out in two directions. They switched to cattle exclusively, and planted drought-resistant alfalfa for feed. They also began to think about longer-range solutions. What if the government would pay them not to use water, the way it pays other farmers not to grow cotton or soybeans?

They pursued two parallel options. For the land in Oregon, they worked up a conservation easement with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the federal Department of Agriculture, whereby in return for a lump sum payment they relinquished their right to run cattle or otherwise develop their acreage in Oregon. The land will be restored to wetland.

They also joined forces with a nascent movement pursuing a permanent buyback of water rights by the Bureau of Reclamation, so that more land could be taken out of production without undue hardship to the farmers and ranchers. This buyback plan was modeled after plans used in other areas to solve similar problems.

This proved to be a very controversial plan in the Klamath, turning old friends and neighbors against one another. In 2002, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) sponsored a bill that would have provided $175 million for a water balancing plan that included buybacks.  It passed the Senate but it never got out of committee in the House, killed by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) on behalf of local agribusiness interests.

Instead, Walden pushed through a bill that provided $50 million to subsidize the purchase of irrigation sprinklers, which likely made the problem worse.

Jeanie and John also helped promote something called a water bank, whereby farmers bid to reduce their irrigated acreage for one year in return for a cash payment from the government. There is great demand for this program, but not enough money to do it properly and it's a year-to-year stopgap, not a long-term fix.

Now the Klamath Basin is a case study in how short-sighted economic decisions can lead to long-term harm, to both the environment and the economy. Without higher flows, the unhealthy conditions in the Klamath River have repeatedly sparked massive kills of young salmon, causing a sharp decline in non-endangered, commercially valuable chinook salmon. But in 2006, with the commercial fishing industry in Oregon and California facing a second year with a drastic curtailment of the fishing season due to dwindling Klamath salmon runs, momentum seemed to be building toward a long-range solution, to find equitable ways to reduce the amount of irrigated land in the basin so that the fishery, and the fishing industry, can recover.

"I want it to stay in crisis so we can find a solution," Jeanie says. "If it doesn't we'll lose momentum."