Some Good News on Klamath Irrigation

In Southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin, farmers are preparing their fields for new crops of potatoes, mint and onions. Last week, local officials declared a drought in Klamath County. But then snow piled up in the Cascade Mountains. Amelia Templeton visited with one farmer who is hopeful about the growing season.

Rob Unruh’s farmhouse is just about a mile from the border with California. This winter, he planted wheat in the field in front of his house, to hold the soil in place.

Skinny green stalks, almost invisible, poke up out of the ground.

“I mean, it’s still here, but it’s pretty sick,” Unruh says.

The problem: not enough rain this winter.

The main crop Unruh grows is potatoes. If you’ve ever bought a bag of basin gold potatoes at Costco, those might be his. But Unruh says he hasn’t bought potato seed yet this spring. He has been putting it off, because he wasn’t sure he would have irrigation water.

“You know, a three-day shut-off of water can be devastating to potatoes. It just takes your crop away,” he says.

Unruh gets most of his water from irrigation ditches. And those ditches are filled with water from Klamath Lake. Several species of endangered fish live in the lake and spawn downstream. So every year, federal irrigation officials have to try to balance the water diverted to farms with the water that fish need. That means Unruh has to wait until spring to find out how much water he’ll get.

“You can’t explain the stress levels,” Unruh says.

For the past two weeks, it has snowed heavily in the mountains. The snowpack is at 90 percent of normal, and that’s good for farmers and fish. Federal water managers have promised to start flooding the canals on April 1, though they may have to turn the water off later.

Unruh can feel the difference in the field in front of his house.

“Three weeks ago, this was bone dry. Now it’s got some moisture,” he says.

Klamath County commissioners have asked Gov. John Kitzhaber for a state drought declaration. But they say it’s just a precautionary measure.

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