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Klamath Basin 'water bank' pushed as possible solution

Conservancy group cites potential to help balance the needs in drought-stricken area

Ashland resident Rich McIntyre is floating what he believes is a workable solution to the water woes facing the Klamath Basin.

The Oregon coordinator for American Lands Conservancy says the group's plan, which would pay farmers who volunteer to give up irrigation water in dry years, would go a long way in meeting the needs of farmers, fish and fowl on the 220,000-acre Klamath Project straddling the Oregon-California border.

The proposal provides relief for distressed farmers while concurrently securing 50,000 acre-feet of water to help rebalance the basin, McIntyre said.

keeping the land in private ownership and requiring continued farming, we have removed the primary objections to our original proposal.

The group has dropped last year's controversial proposal to purchase agricultural land to leave more water for fish and wildlife.

The new proposal unveiled this week calls for the federal government to pay some &

36;50 million to farmers to bank 50,000 acre-feet of water in the parched basin, where the agricultural community, waterfowl at the national wildlife refuges and Klamath River salmon are suffering.

Under the plan, the federal government would pay &

36;2,500 for each acre of farmland that grants an irrigation easement.

During years declared dry by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, farmers who volunteer for the program would be barred from using their irrigation water. They would be required to plant cover crops to prevent erosion and be prohibited from drilling wells during those years.

The proposal comes as the federal government struggles to balance competing water demands from farmers, Indian tribes, environmental groups and fish and wildlife.

An estimated 30,000 salmon have been found dead in the lower Klamath this fall because of diseases caused by low, warm water levels.

The idea would be that the 50,000 acre-feet of water would go into a water bank, McIntyre said. The Bureau of Reclamation at the beginning of the season would make a determination whether there was adequate water for all uses. If there is, the people would farm the land as they have always done.

If not, they would dry-land farm with a cover crop, he added. That water would then be reallocated by the bureau. Whether it was used for in-stream flows, keeping Klamath Lake elevations higher, for the wildlife refuges or distribution for agriculture would be determined by the bureau.

During normal water years, the water bank would not be tapped, he said.

The 50,000 acre-feet of water represents about one-tenth of the annual water use in the project.

While the proposed water bank would not meet all the demands during a dry year, it would provide a resource that can be built on, he said.

It begins the process of creating a more dependable supply of water than what exists right now, he said.

The group already has a commitment for about half of the acre-feet needed to form the water bank, he said.

We don't see any problems getting the rest signed up, he said. This avoids the bugaboo of the federal buyout. The land stays in agriculture. It stays on the tax rolls.

The proposal would provide an anchor for a bank of about 100,000 acre-feet for dry years being developed by the Bureau of Reclamation, he said. The agency is buying water from farmers who don't need it and making it available to fish, wildlife and other farms.

But the Klamath Water Users Association, which opposed the group's proposal for a government buyout of farmland at &

36;3,000 an acre, remains wary.

Executive Director Dan Keppen said legal questions remain about selling irrigation easements. His group is working on its own water bank proposal that would cause some farmland to lie fallow in dry years until new reservoirs are developed.

We're really trying to shy away from institutionalizing anything on a permanent basis, Keppen told The Associated Press.

But McIntyre said the environmental group is flexible.

Our proposal is not written in stone, he said. We can make it work for the people on the project and for downstream interests who, like the salmon, are going belly up in the noonday sun.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at