Too late to save many farms, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton promised Tuesday to release some water to fields in the drought-ravaged Klamath Basin amid conflicting reports over whether there's a surplus in Upper Klamath Lake and whether the water is legally committed to imperiled fish.
In a surprise announcement, Norton said that new measurements show that lake levels are higher than predicted despite the record drought, meaning that up to 75,000 acre-feet of water--enough to supply two families' personal needs for a year--will be released to farmers.
The water could flow as early as today through the Klamath Falls head gates, where farmers have set up an encampment. The farmers are protesting a federal decision in April to shut off water to farms and save it for three fish species protected by the Endangered Species Act.
About two-thirds of the farm acreage in the basin is in Oregon and the rest is in California.
Norton's decision infuriated environmentalists who questioned her claims of extra water and said her plan would violate the Endangered Species Act as well as starve wildlife refuges favored by bald eagles.
The Interior secretary's promise of more water did little to assuage some embittered farm protest leaders who want assurances of a long-term water supply. "We're going to keep protesting until there's a guaranteed water supply for years to come," said Gavin Rajnus, 33, a fourth-generation farmer from Malin, Ore., who estimates he has suffered $300,000 to $400,000 in crop losses this year.
But Rajnus said some water is better than nothing, and it will help some farmers raising cattle and feed. "It's going to green up a lot of pasture. She [Norton] wants to help, and she has helped, but not in the sense that it's created peace."
Another protest leader, Jon Hall, said the water would provide him with a second cutting of alfalfa. But, he added, "the general reaction is that it's a drop in the bucket. Why wasn't this done three months ago?"
The decision was praised by some Oregon officials, including Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, who said in a statement that he was encouraged "by the Interior Department's speed in quickly making the decision to send water to the Klamath growers."
Others said the water is too little, too late for many of the 1,200 farmers along the Oregon-California border desperate for water for failing crops and thirsty livestock. Those farmers have struggled since April without the irrigation water that has been supplied by the Bureau of Reclamation since the first years of the 20th century.
Don Russell, president of the Klamath Basin Water Users Assn., a consortium of water districts in the basin, estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet of the new water would be lost simply as it soaks into the dried, cracked irrigation canals.
This year, for the first time in its 94-year history in the basin, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off water to 19 of 21 water districts, water that also feeds two national wildlife refuges. Bureau officials blamed the drought and the federal regulations that forced them to provide water for the threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River and two endangered fish species called suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.
Some portrayed Norton's announcement as a political ploy intended to placate farmers while sacrificing wildlife.
Environmental groups claimed the release of water will harm the fish and other wildlife species that depend on marshes and lakes in the refuges. They noted that Norton is not releasing water to two national refuges famous for their wealth of migratory birds.
More than 1,000 bald eagles using refuge land "could be put at risk by this latest Bush administration move," said Steve Pedery of WaterWatch, a Portland, Ore.-based environmental group.
Pedery questioned the wisdom of dispensing more water during what experts are calling the worst drought on record in the Klamath basin. "It's like finding your checking account is overdrawn by $1,000 instead of $3,000, so you decide to go and write a check for $2,000."
The new water earmarked for farmers, Norton said, is due in part to "irrigators above the Klamath Basin Project who have been able to conserve more water than previously projected, and thanks to Mother Nature, the scattered thunderstorms that have provided much-needed rain to the area and the lake."
Some greeted Norton's comments about higher water levels with suspicion.
"They know how much water's in the lake. They have an agenda. When the agenda changes, the lake level changes," Rajnus said.
As recently as last week, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeffrey McCracken said the lake was only a tenth of an inch above required levels for the fish--far too little to supply the water Norton has committed. But McCracken said Tuesday that sufficient water is available to be released.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in an April biological opinion that the two sucker species currently need a lake level of 4,140 feet above sea level, a minimum that can drop to 4,139 feet in September. Service spokeswoman Patricia Foulk said she has not been informed about the exact sources of the extra water.