'Water bank' drags river basin deeper into debt

‘Win-win’ water solution only worsens tension over scarce resource

  • Rancher Gary Wright, a participant in the Klamath water bank program, is paid by the government to pump groundwater on his ranch several miles south of the Oregon state line

    Ross William Hamilton, The Oregonian

From her house near Klamath Falls, Ore., Kelly Holcomb loves to look out her kitchen window at the juniper-dotted mountains nearby and the vast green fields of the Klamath Valley. But she doesn’t like what she sees to the west, from which a neighboring farmer installed a large well a few years back. The well taps into the same aquifer where Holcomb’s family gets its drinking water.

Not long after the farmer started pumping 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Holcomb turned on the kitchen faucet; a tiny trickle dribbled out, then nothing. Her well, dug in the 1930s, was suddenly dry. Holcomb and her husband had to spend over $10,000 to deepen it.

"Listen, lots of our friends are farmers. We have horses; we buy hay," says Holcomb, who owns a Western clothing and jewelry store. "I want the ag community to stay in business, but I don’t believe it should be to the detriment of everyone around them."

What upsets Holcomb most is that her neighbor isn’t even using the water; he’s selling it to the federal government in a program that, ironically, was supposed to end the tug-of-war over limited water supplies in the Klamath Basin. In the past five years, the basin has become a flash point in the regionwide struggle over water between environmental, urban and agricultural interests (HCN, 12/8/03: News flash: Fish do need water).

In 2002, NOAA Fisheries started the "water bank" program to free up water to help threatened coho salmon. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation manages the project, which is funded for 10 years. It pays farmers to stop irrigating altogether, or to use only well water on their fields — or, as in the case of Holcomb’s neighbor, to pump their well water into irrigation canals, so the Bureau can leave more water in the river.

The water bank was supposed to keep everyone happy. But four years and $20 million later, a solution to the basin’s water problems is as elusive as ever — and the water bank may only be making things worse.

"Ten years of the water bank isn’t going to solve the problems down here," says Jim Bryant, who was the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath director from 1991 to 2003. "It’s a pipe dream."

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The program appears to be sending more water downstream to help fish. However, the actual results are hard to quantify because the Bureau doesn’t monitor the water diversions of the 1,200 farmers in the Klamath Project, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office.

In July, low water levels and high temperatures diminished the oxygen in the river water, killing several thousand endangered sucker fish just south of Klamath Falls. Roger Smith, a fisheries biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the water bank isn’t helping the ecosystem long-term.

By encouraging groundwater pumping, the water bank has also led to conflicts between farmers and numerous homeowners like Kelly Holcomb, who have seen their well water dwindle. The Klamath Valley and Tule Lake areas have seen an eightfold increase in groundwater pumping since 2000, according to a May 2005 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. In California, an irrigation district along the border owns at least 10 new wells that, on average, pump 8,200 gallons per minute.

In fact, the Bureau may be robbing Peter to pay Paul, because the wells most likely draw water away from the springs that feed the region’s rivers and lakes. And preliminary findings indicate that the current rate of pumping is not sustainable. In the past five years, the aquifer has sustained a net loss of 13 feet; in summer months, it’s dropped by up to 40 feet in some places.

"We’ve never seen declines like that, not on that scale," says Ned Gates, a hydrogeologist with the Oregon Water Resources Department. "Part of it is it’s been a drought, but if this pumping wasn’t going on, I think you’d see a lot of recovery."

This summer, a coalition of environmental groups asked the state to place a moratorium on all new water rights, including well pumping permits, until the U.S. Geological Survey finishes two long-term studies to determine how much water the aquifer holds and the effect of groundwater pumping on rivers and lakes. In August, the state denied that request.

Pork-barrel pumpers

Writing new groundwater permits is "insanity," says Bob Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon, when the basin’s water is already over-allocated among farmers, homeowners, wildlife refuges and imperiled fish. The state hasn’t even determined how much water is due to the Klamath Tribe, which owns the basin’s most senior water rights, he adds.

Even some farmers call the water bank shortsighted. Third-generation Klamath Falls farmer Bobby Flowers, a former Farm Bureau president, says the only farmers who support it are those who are selling water to the government.

The Bureau acknowledges that the water bank is too expensive to maintain forever, but agency staffers are short on details for other alternatives. Talk of long-term solutions, such as buying out farmers, has hit roadblocks within the Bush administration, which argues that farm buyouts ruin rural communities.

For landowners like Holcomb, the situation is simply not acceptable.

"I don’t have any answers, but I know what’s wrong," says Holcomb. "My neighbor made $60,000 from the government to pump his well that first year, and he’s been pumping two years since. I don’t mind pumping water for farming, but when it’s bought and just shipped out of here, it isn’t right."

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.

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