The Klamath Basin watershed, which spans much of the length of the border between Oregon and California, is naturally arid, a long flat expanse which flows from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. But for the past several years, arid has become desiccated. The basin has been enduring a drought.
A century ago, there was a span of marshlands and lakes to the western end of the basin. But in turning it into agricultural land, the U.S. government began to draw water from those wetlands and send it east to turn the near-desert at the foothills of the mountains into farmland and pasture. After World War II, settled by returned soldiers, it became a powerhouse of potatoes, grain, and cattle. But the wetlands never recovered.
Today, more than 1,400 farmers work 225,000 acres in the Klamath Basin, and every one of them depends upon irrigation bringing water from Upper Klamath Lake to their fields. But the lake is low, and farmers aren’t the only ones who need it.
On April 14, 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation informed farmers that they would be receiving about 8 percent of the water they petitioned for, the water they predicted they would need in such a dry year. And they won’t get it until June.
“The simple fact is it just hasn’t rained or snowed this year. We all know how dry our fields are, and the rest of the watersheds are in the same boat,” said Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. “We all know what this is going to mean to our farms, our families, and our community as a whole. For some of us, it may mean we’re not in business anymore next year.”
Balanced against the needs of the farmers are the needs of the watershed itself – lower water levels threaten the nearly-extinct Klamath river Coho salmon, a major financial resource for the Yurok tribe, and the sucker fish, a keystone species in the region. Lowering the level of the lake too much will also speed evaporation, ensuring there is even less water next year.