The Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts are bracing for potentially significant impacts from reduced water supplies this spring after a “call for water” was made to state water officials March 1 by the Klamath Tribes.
If the Tribes are successful in their call, water in Fourmile Lake could be lost to the irrigation system that feeds those districts and includes Fish Lake and Agate Lake.
Ivan Gall, interim deputy director of the Oregon Water Resources Department, notified county and state officials this past Friday that the call for water had been made. Official notices will go out this Friday to people affected, ordering that no water be diverted by “junior users” — those whose water rights came after established Klamath Tribes rights.
The decision impacts hundreds of people in the Klamath and Rogue River basins. Gall explained in an email last week that about a dozen junior water rights included in the March 1 order had not been regulated in the past.
“There are approximately one dozen junior water rights that are subject to regulation (and have not been regulated in the past),” Gall stated.
“Two irrigation districts in the Rogue Basin, the Medford Irrigation District and the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District hold junior water rights to store water in Fourmile Lake. Fourmile Lake ... is tributary to (Upper Klamath Lake), and the storage of water in Fourmile Lake normally occurs during the fall and winter.”
The Klamath Tribes have the earliest water rights, with hundreds of users in the Klamath and Rouge basins deemed junior users. When lake elevations are deemed lower than those established as part of the Tribal water rights, a ”call for enforcement and regulation” is submitted.
Bryan Baumgartner, president of both the Rogue Basin Water Users Council and the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District, said irrigation district officials are extremely concerned about reduced water supplies during an ongoing drought.
“We are absolutely very concerned. We’ve been in pretty much continual drought conditions, which has changed our operations drastically. We have yet even to be able to fill our irrigation reservoirs for the past seven or eight seasons in a row,” he said.
“We’re not even getting full irrigation seasons. If there even is enough water for what they would deem a valid call, there’s going to be even less water for us to utilize. And we also supply for municipalities and industrial water users. And we release water on a continual basis for fish flows and for habitat, so those will also be additional impacts. It’s a very far-reaching impact.”
Representatives for the Klamath Tribes were not available for comment Thursday. In the call for enforcement and regulation submitted to state water officials, Clay Dumont, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, stated: “The Klamath Tribes hereby place a call, with the concurrence of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, for enforcement of the determined Tribal water right claims for the water bodies and stream reaches.” The document went on to name several rivers and streams that feed into the Klamath Basin, including the Williamson River, Sprague River and Wood River.
“The Tribes and the BIA believe that the Tribal water rights for in-stream flows and water levels are not being met at various locations or may not be met in the future based on gauge data, on our understanding of the system, and on the potential for activities that divert or store surface water for various purposes,” the document stated.
The letter requested that monitoring and regulation take place from March 1 through Oct. 31, 2023. Under state law, restrictions would be placed on junior users until October or until lake levels rise to the 4,143-feet lake elevation outlined in water rights held by the Tribes.
Baumgartner said another implication of the call for water was that the Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts might be expected to send water from Fourmile Lake to Upper Klamath Lake.
“From what we understand, the tribe is expecting the two districts with water stored in Fourmile Lake to return stored supplies back to (Upper) Klamath Lake to meet their required 4,143-feet lake elevation, which they have, and that the Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to,” he said.
“We have no capability to divert water back to (Upper) Klamath Lake, yet the call on the water would mean they are requesting our Fourmile Creek reservoir water would go to Klamath instead of coming to the Rogue Basin, like it has for over 100 years. We have no infrastructure to make such a release. It was not designed that way.”
Shavon Haynes, watermaster for District 13, which encompasses the two irrigation districts, talked with Jackson County commissioners last week about the issue and said potential impacts “have yet to be determined.”
County Administrator Danny Jordan said the two irrigation districts could find themselves in similar straits as the Talent Irrigation District, which has faced serious water shortages in recent years.
Haynes said regulations on junior water users, based on lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake, had not happened before, but recent federal rulings had been a contributing factor.
“This is the first year that the agency is making a call for the lake elevation. The call has been made in the past, but because the Bureau of Reclamation was releasing water out of the lake from Link River Dam and releasing for ESA (Endangered Species Act) flows, those calls for water had not been validated before,” Haynes said.
“Water regulation happens every year, and the regulation process isn’t anything new. But this is the first time it will impact water use of Fourmile Lake. It’s one of the two storage locations. The bottom line is, when the lake is too low, junior users have to stop using. They will definitely be feeling some pretty significant impacts. People are a little concerned.”
Excellent news. Maybe we should stop trying to grow crops in a desert and reclaim that land for housing instead.
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