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Can't turn back


Ending Rogue Basin use of Klamath water would devastate the region

Anyone paying attention to the Klamath Basin's water troubles shouldn't be surprised that water shipped over the mountains into the Rogue Valley has become part of the fight.

But most, including us, would be surprised if a threatened lawsuit leads to an end to that practice. There is just too much water under the bridge ' or over the hill in this case ' to turn back.

But that won't stop a couple of environmental groups from trying. They contend that the 30,000 acre-feet of water sent from the Klamath Basin into the Rogue Basin would assist in the recovery of endangered fish species if it were kept in the Klamath River.

There are a couple of notable holes in their argument, along with some compelling points. But, first, here's a bit of history:

Much of the water that feeds the Talent Irrigation District ' and thus much of the agricultural crops in the Bear Creek Valley ' originates on the Klamath Basin side of the Cascades. It is stored in Hyatt and Howard Prairie reservoirs, before being shipped via canals and through tunnels to the Rogue Basin. There the water is stored in Emigrant Lake and delivered to farms and orchards by canals.

Farther north, Klamath Basin water is also delivered to Fish Lake and then to the Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts.

This system was first developed in the 1920s and has played a crucial role in supporting agriculture in the Rogue Basin. Without that water, orchards and farmlands ' particularly those in the upper Bear Creek Valley ' would dry up.

But environmentalists say the diversion has also played a crucial role in the degradation of the Klamath Basin water supply. Siphoning the water over the mountains has contributed to the decline of the endangered sucker in Upper Klamath Lake and of salmon runs in the Klamath River.

How does it makes sense, they ask, to expect Klamath farmers to reduce their demand for the basin's water while at the same time it's being shipped over the mountain to other farmers?

Well, there are a couple of points that shouldn't be lost here. The first is that the water put into storage in the reservoirs is collected in the winter and spring, when stream and river flows are at their highest. If that water were not collected, it would pass downstream and out to sea ' at a time when there is already far more water than is needed to provide for fish passage and protection.

The second point is that pulling the water back from the Rogue Basin would cause tremendous environmental damage of its own.

Four reservoirs would go dry, eliminating habitat for fish, wildlife and plant species that have grown to depend on them in the last century. The Bear Creek Valley would lose thousands of acres of irrigated farmland, again degrading not only the quality of life for people, but for wildlife as well.

With nearly a century of history behind us, it's just not feasible to pull the plug on the water transfers. As with the Klamath Basin Project, the federal government established practices that in turn played important roles in how communities developed. Sometimes you just can't turn back. This is one of those times.