11th-hour pause to water limits

By Jeff Barnard / The Associated Press

State water masters on Thursday were evaluating demands from farmers in a federal irrigation project and from the Klamath Tribes to enforce their senior water rights in drought-stricken Klamath County, the Oregon Water Resources Department said.

The city of Klamath Falls was told to shut down some municipal drinking water wells to satisfy the calls from the Klamath Reclamation Project, which serves 1,200 farms straddling the Oregon-California border, water resources spokeswoman Racquel Rancier said.

However, the city intends to contest the order to shut down two wells, saying state law prioritizes human consumption, City Manager Nathan Cherpeski said.

One of the wells is high in manganese and only used as an auxiliary. The other serves the northern end of the city, including a hospital and the Oregon Institute of Technology.

Cherpeski said the city is hiring an expert to evaluate how much impact drawing water from that well has on Upper Klamath Lake, the primary reservoir for the Klamath Project. He said the well is only 180 feet inside a 1-mile zone around the lake where wells can be shut down to satisfy water rights.

The city has never had to impose water rationing, and the City Council is likely to discuss the issue, he added. Future demands by water users could affect other city wells.

Klamath Water Users Association represents the irrigation districts serving farms on the Klamath Project. Director Greg Addington said that even with the water demand and groundwater pumping, some farmers would not get water this year. The drought has left reservoirs with no more than 60 percent of the water needed to serve the project.

Rancier said water masters are evaluating the situation on rivers flowing through the Klamath Tribes’ former reservation, where last year the demand for water forced ranchers to stop irrigating pastures. The tribes invoked their water rights to maintain stream flows for fish. This year’s call covers sections of the Sprague, Wood and Sycan rivers and several creeks.

Representatives of the tribes and ranchers irrigating from those rivers did not immediately return telephone calls for comment.

The tribes’ right dates to time immemorial, and the project’s right dates to 1905.

This is the second straight year of drought in Klamath County. Last year’s drought prompted ranchers to sign an agreement with the tribes on sharing during times of scarcity and improving fish habitat. Legislation to fund aspects of the agreement is pending in the U.S. Senate.