Balance in the Klamath Basin


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The Klamath Basin, where 12,000 acres of ranchland have voluntarily adopted practices that require drastically reduced water withdrawals.

It won’t work … people have been doing things the same way for too long…you can’t take water off of these lands, they will dry up.
─Wood River Rancher, 2003

This was the best thing we have ever done for the ranch, for the valley.
─The same Wood River Rancher, 2011, after converting half of his pastures to dry land grazing

At the start of the twenty-first century, California and Oregon’s Klamath Basin was on the brink of environmental disaster. This vast watershed had once supported large-scale ranching operations and a commercial fishery. However, decades of over-tapping the water supply for cattle was leading to withered crops and a fractured community.

Faced with the destruction of their livelihood, a group of local ranchers took the radical step of leaving their irrigation water in-stream and managing their land for dryland, or reduced irrigation, pasture. Their timely decision is helping to restore the ecosystem and usher in a new era of ranching. In the process of rethinking water use, this once divided community of ranchers established new bonds built around the triumph of the commons.

Twelve thousand acres of ranchland have now experimented with maintaining productivity under drastically reduced irrigation, with a list of ranchers waiting to transfer their water rights in-stream. Conflict over water in an over-allocated basin is not a situation unique to the Klamath. Throughout the United States, on both small and large scales, there is growing demand for increasingly limited water resources. Water shortages always result in a losing party, social tensions, and even violence.

The Klamath story showcases how agricultural communities can self-regulate, making their own choices about how and where to use less water and to drive ecological restoration on their private lands. As a result, everybody benefits from greater water security and restored essential habitat.

The Restorative Process

The Klamath River flows 400 kilometers from its headwaters near Crater Lake in Oregon’s high desert, through Upper Klamath Lake, to the Pacific coast of Northern California. The basin forming the river is over 40,000 square kilometers and supports thousands of independent family farms and ranches, four recognized Native American Tribes, and a bumper array of wildlife—from a rich fishery of salmon and steelhead to endangered species like Lost River and shortnose suckers.

The primary inflows to Upper Klamath Lake are the Sprague River, the Williamson River, and streams of the Wood River Valley. Widespread damming for the flood irrigation of vast amounts of pastureland once diverted tens of millions of cubic meters of water from these rivers before they reached the lake. Much of the water used for irrigation evaporated from the fields. A significant amount of this water, laden with nitrogen and phosphorus from pastures, flowed back into the lake. Thousands of wetland acres were drained and diked. As a result, the lake turned hypereutrophic, with widespread algal blooms creating a shallow dead zone for fish and other aquatic organisms.1 Construction of a series of four large dams on the main stem Klamath River blocked salmon and steelhead from hundreds of kilometers of spawning and rearing habitat. By the turn of the millennium, the basin’s once giant salmon run—the third largest in the lower 48 states—had fallen to 10 percent of its historic size. In the early 2000s, the situation reached a crisis point. In 2001, low lake levels resulted in the halted delivery of irrigation water to thousands of acres of farmland. The next year, low flows in the main stem of the Klamath River contributed to tens of thousands of salmon and steelhead dying off.

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Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust
Conventional ranching practices in the Klamath Basin rely heavily on water withdrawals. Pictured here is a dried stream beside a canal for irrigation.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) is meant to manage lake levels, but has historically struggled to meet three competing needs: to leave sufficient water in the lake for endangered sucker species, release sufficient water downstream for endangered salmon, and provide sufficient water to farmland. Each year since the early 1990s, one or another stakeholder suffered as a result of over-allocated water. In 2001, low lake levels caused the BOR to stop delivering water to many farms, causing financial losses and widespread social unrest.

During this crisis, a few ranchers in the Wood River Valley realized that if they chose to manage their water differently and allow sufficient flow of cold, clean water to the lake, then everyone downstream would benefit. The Wood River Valley in the upper Klamath Basin is of special interest because although it only makes up 5 percent of the watershed, it provides 25 percent of the water, and 30 percent of the external phosphorus flowing to the Klamath Lake.1 The Valley floor is ringed with springs that flow year-round with cold, clean water from the base of the surrounding slopes. If left in-stream, the water from these springs would flow a short 20 kilometers to reach the lake. However, under typical management, most of this water is diverted for flood irrigation, much of which returns to the system warm and laden with nutrients. The Valley provides the opportunity to make relatively small changes in management in a relatively small area, but have a significant impact on the amount and quality of water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake.

For the 2002 season, four ranchers in the Valley decided to lease their irrigation water to the Bureau of Reclamation. The ranchers would leave all of their water in-stream, and use dry grazing techniques instead. The rest of the Valley was incredulous that the ranchers were agreeing to such an extreme change, fearing that not only would it irreversibly harm those non-irrigated pastures but would also impact adjoining and nearby fields as well. Back then, there was no understanding of how many cattle could graze on the dry pastures, how forage grasses and herbs would respond to no irrigation, nor how long it might take forage to recover from grazing.

After the first year, when neighbors saw both fruitful dry land pastures and rising lake water levels, more ranchers chose to participate in irrigation forbearance.

What began in 2002 with four innovative ranchers grew into the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust (KBRT), a regional nonprofit organization that gained importance as more farmers joined the effort to rethink water use and irrigation practices. Ranchers, for instance, could voluntarily accept payments for leaving their irrigation water in the stream. The KBRT obtained its funds from existing programs and agencies. For example, Farm Bill programs administered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) provided important resources with 3-10 year programs that encourage ranchers to experiment with managing their operations with less water before making permanent agreements to decrease water use.

Federal and state programs also provided technical support and assistance for other management changes that kept cattle production at acceptable levels to support ranches with little or no flood irrigation. These changes included smaller fields for rotational grazing, new sources of stock water, adjusted length of the grazing season, different livestock types, limited irrigation, and dry land seeding.

Early in the effort, there were open questions about the actual amount of water saved, increases in stream flow, impacts on groundwater levels, and changes in nutrient loads in the Wood River and Klamath Lake. Therefore, a key mission for KBRT was to provide clear science-based results to demonstrate the benefits of the new management system. With support from state and federal agencies, KBRT led a comprehensive monitoring effort to inform and guide management decisions. The program includes monitoring stream flow, water quality, shallow groundwater levels, vegetation changes, and evapotranspiration (water evaporated from soil and transpired by plants). KBRT also monitors ranching operations to determine how to achieve maximum cattle production and pasture productivity with minimum water use. A three year study supported by the NRCS Conservation Effects Assessment Project led to better understanding of changes in forage, productivity patterns, and water availability. This demonstrates that, instead of the traditional frequent flood irrigation practice, only one or two well-timed irrigation events can keep productivity close to fully irrigated levels.2

Achievements by the Numbers, 2002-2012

  • 40 landowners with activities on their property
  • 14,354 acres in conservation irrigation management
  • 97,472 estimated acre feet of water saved
  • 2,517 acres of wetland restored
  • 1,854 acres of wetland in permanent easements
  • 48 miles of stream habitat restored
  • 10 impediments to fish passage removed
  • 4,015,133 dollars brought into the basin and paid directly to local contractors and realtors

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Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust
In 2002, four ranchers in the Wood River Valley (pictured here) of the Klamath Basin leased their irrigation water to the Bureau of Reclamation and pursued dryland ranching. Their success eventually became the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust.

Accordingly, KBRT now supports a management strategy in the Wood River system that allows limited irrigation, leading to increased rancher participation and water savings. The success of the KBRT programs in the Wood River resulted in the growth of the effort to other sub-basins in the watershed including the Williamson and Sprague Rivers.

“KBRT had skeptics among the ranching community, but with time, most ranchers see the results: little loss of cattle production, much less irrigation, environmental restoration, and increased property values. There is no downside to the program,” noted one of the ranchers, Kurt Thomas.

Many ranchers are now considering the permanent transfer of a portion or all of their water rights for flood irrigation to water rights in-stream.

As KBRT has gained the confidence of increasing numbers of private landowners, efforts shifted to ecological restoration activities on private properties previously closed to such efforts. KBRT is now working with landowners to restore and protect riparian areas and critical wetlands, restore fish passage, and return flow to streams that previously ran dry. There are several programs aimed at improving the use of natural resources, but these often require an extensive application, contracting, and reporting process on the part of landowners, which many find prohibitive. KBRT helps shoulder the work for applications and fund management, allowing landowners to focus on their ranches and on adopting new management practices.

KBRT’s success became clearly evident a few years ago. In February 2010, varied stakeholders from the entire Basin signed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. This landmark agreement addressed multiple issues, including decreasing water use in the Upper Klamath Lake watershed. Communities across the basin agreed to increase inflow of 37 million cubic meters of water to the Lake each year—a commitment that would have been inconceivable just a few years before. Recent events in the Klamath Basin suggest water use will continue to be controversial. But thanks to a few brave ranchers who took the plunge, KBRT will play an increasingly important role for all stakeholders who intend to restore the Klamath basin to its full glory.