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Published March 18, 2010, 09:24 AM

Governor declares drought in Oregon's Klamath County

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Gov. Ted Kulongoski issued a state drought declaration for Klamath and surrounding counties on Wednesday, and asked the Obama administration to follow suit with a federal disaster declaration so farmers can get loans and other assistance.

By: Jeff Barnard, Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Gov. Ted Kulongoski issued a state drought declaration for Klamath and surrounding counties on Wednesday, and asked the Obama administration to follow suit with a federal disaster declaration so farmers can get loans and other assistance.

Meanwhile, federal authorities are expected to announce Thursday whether irrigation water will have to be cut off to farmers like it was in 2001 to help protected fish survive a drought. A lack of rain and snow over the winter makes it likely farmers will not get what they need to stay in business.

NOAA Fisheries Service issued a new plan, known as a biological opinion, dictating how much water has to go down the Klamath River to sustain threatened coho salmon. It takes the place of a federal court order dictating flows the past four years.

The plan finds that operating the irrigation project without restraint will send coho to extinction, and lays out minimum flows for salmon in wet as well as dry years.

Minimum levels also have to be maintained in Upper Klamath Lake, the irrigation project’s main reservoir, to sustain two endangered species of sucker.

The governor’s drought declaration allows farmers to uncap emergency drought wells to sustain their fields.

“The water situation presents a real threat of economic loss to those who live and work in the Klamath Basin — and the state is going to do everything in its power to help,” Kulongoski said in a statement.

Kulongoski sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack saying rain has been 81 percent of normal, reservoirs were 51 percent of normal and snowpack 71 percent of normal in the region.

“A result of such conditions has led the Bureau of Reclamation to estimate that irrigation water will be in short supply this season and may not be available until late in the irrigation season, which will be too late to be of significant value to agriculture in the county,” the governor wrote.

A federal disaster declaration would open access to aid, mostly low-interest loans. Kulongoski has acknowledged that state and federal assistance will not keep farmers from suffer-ing losses.

Greg Addington, director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said all wells within the irrigation project provide enough water to keep 20 percent to 25 percent of the land producing crops, which range from potatoes to pasture. This year will be the first test for many of them, drilled since the 2001 irrigation shut-off.

Addington said he has been keeping in touch with the Klamath Tribes to avoid the bitter-ness that erupted during the 2001 irrigation shut-off, when federal agents were called in to guard headgates forced open to allow water to flow to the irrigation project.

The Klamath Basin Reclamation Agreement, signed last month to end years of fighting over water in the Klamath Basin, has yet to be put in force or funded by Congress.

“It is going to be hard,” Addington said. “It’s hard to have your whole life tied up in the ability to get surface water and you can’t get it.

“You can’t help but look for how come. Some of it is related to climate and precipitation. Some of it is related to biological opinions, and that is just the way it is.”

Officials of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the irrigation project, and NOAA Fisheries are joining members of the water users association for their annual meeting Thursday night, Addington said.

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