Who is Suffering From Lack of Klamath Water? Examining Federal Irrigator Claims

This year the Klamath River Basin’s federal irrigators have declared that the US Bureau of Reclamation is taking away their ability to farm by keeping too much water in Upper Klamath Lake and allowing too much water to flow down the Klamath River. Low snowpack and inadequate inflow to Upper Klamath Lake have, in fact, limited the ability of the US Bureau of Reclamation to meet all its obligation to deliver irrigation water, while simultaneously also meeting the needs of threatened and endangered species in the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake.

The protesting federal irrigators are represented by the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA). Here is how KWUA’s President Ben DuVal reacted to Reclamation’s announcement: “Family farms, rural communities, and wildlife are going to suffer beyond imagination.”

Beyond imagination?

This is not the first time we’ve heard such rhetoric. In fact, every year when there has not been enough Klamath River water to satisfy the desires of growers to irrigate 200,000 acres within the Klamath Irrigation Project, spokespersons for federal irrigators and their politician shills loudly proclaim that farming is going to come to a standstill and that the resulting social and economic impacts will be devastating.

Back in 2001, the first years federal irrigators did not get all the Klamath water they desire, we were told that the Upper Klamath River Basin was being turned into a “dust bowl.” This year, federal irrigators are claiming that workers and town businesses will also be deeply hurt According to a KWUA Press Release:

The devastating lack of irrigation water for yet another year is likely to prove too  much to bear for the employees of the farmers and ranchers, who will be facing severely reduced hours or no work at all. This impact is multiplied for the local businesses, the regional economy, and local public agencies that are dependent on the contributions of agriculture into the economy.

These claims are accepted at face value by reports and repeated in newspaper, TV, radio and other reports on the water situation in the Klamath. They can not help but elicit sympathy from citizens everywhere. I too am sympathetic to both irrigators and workers who are not able to engage in the activity that puts bread on their tables and helps pay their mortgages. But are those claims accurate and truthful?

That’s the question I examine in this post. Using on-line tools, including the Environmental Working Groupdatabase of government subsidies to agricultural producers and Google Earth Pro’s current and historical Landsat images, I take a close look at how agricultural production and income within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project has been impacted when Klamath River water has not been available to meet all irrigation water demands. The post updates and supplements other KlamBlog posts which can be read by clicking on KlamBlog’s “understanding agriculture” label.

Examining past claims

Here’s the link to the Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Database’s results for the Tulelake zip code. The zip code is dominated by the Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) which includes roughly 20% of the land receiving subsidized irrigation water via Reclamation’s Klamath Irrigation Project.

Farming on rich peat soils that once were the bed of Tule Lake, TID is where most of the largest growers using Klamath River water for irrigation reside. Clicking on the individual producers shows the commodity, conservation and disaster payments that irrigator received each year beginning in 1995 and continuing through part of 2020.

The data for individual growers residing within the Tulelake zip code shows that, in the same years that they received “disaster” payments, many irrigators also received crop subsidy (commodity) payments. That includes 2002 and 2003 when disaster payments based on the 2001 growing season were received by individual irrigators. Crop subsidy payments were received by federal irrigators for the 2001 growing year which is the same year the federal irrigator organization, Klamath Water Users Association, was claiming that federal policy and the ESA had created a “dust bowl” in the area.

If the cut-off of federal irrigation water truly ended all farming in 2001, growers would not have received commodity payments. That means we can determine the extent to which the “dust bowl” claims are true by comparing 2002 crop subsidy payments to crop subsidies received by growers the previous and subsequent year when there was no water shut-off. Examining disaster payments to irrigators will also provide insight into the extent to which KWUA’s 2001 “dust bowl” claim is an accurate description.

Below find conservation, disaster and crop subsidy payments from the federal government to Crawford Farms and Staunton Farms, the two largest growers operating within the Tulelake zip code during the years 2001, 2002 and 2003. These are not the only taxpayer subsidies received by the Crawford and Staunton families. Both families control lots more land within the Klamath Irrigation Project through a web of family member ownership and trusts.

Payments are listed in the year they were received by growers. That means payments received in 2002 were for 2001, the first year irrigation water was curtailed to provide flows in Klamath River for Coho salmon. Payments received in 2003 were for the 2002 growing year, the year over 60,000 adult salmon died in the lower Klamath River as a result of low flows and bad water quality creating a salmon disease epidemic.

So what can we conclude based on these payments?

First, crop subsidies given to each growers indicates that irrigation continued during the 2001 growing season. While commodity production decreased, the Basin was not rendered a “dust bowl”as claimed by KWUA and disaster payments made up most of any loss in income due to the lack of irrigation water.

When federal irrigation water was not available, growers likely utilized groundwater to irrigate high value row crops on their best farmlands. The main row crops grown in the Tule Lake zip code are potatoes, onions, alfalfa hay, mint and horseradish. Those crops do not receive commodity subsidies which, in the Klamath River Basin, are typically for barley, wheat and other grains.

Second, note that in 2003 Crawford Farms received $158,016 and Staunton Farms $87,338 in Conservation Payments. “Conservation” in this case may have been simply leaving land idle to conserve water or planting cover crops that don’t require irrigation. The payments were made under the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Congress earmarked $50 million in the 2002 Farm Bill for EQIP in the Klamath River Basin.

Conservation payments to federal irrigators for the 2002 growing season were by far the highest amount received over the 25 year period from 1995 through 2020. Those payments were received for the same year that federal management of water in the Klamath River Basin killed over 60,000 adult salmon in the lower Klamath River.  The two actions combined resulted in a significant transfer of income from those who depend on salmon to the Klamath’s federal irrigators. Those who depend on salmon are, for the most part, the descendants of the Basin’s Indigenous native people; The Klamath’s federal irrigators, on the other hand, are mostly the descendants of white settlers. So it is that federal water policy in 2002 was, In KlamBlog’s view, racist in effect if not intention.

Exploiting groundwater

While there were a few irrigation wells in the Tule Lake area prior to 2001, the number of such wells has ballooned since then, including ten large irrigation wells that were gifted by California taxpayers to the Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) in 2001. The California Department of Water Resources estimates that 35 to 45 new irrigation wells were developed in the Tule Lake area between 2001 and 2010. Some of those wells are now used to market groundwater to other irrigators and to the US Bureau of Reclamation.

The Klamath’s federal irrigators do not like to talk about their use of groundwater to sustain production when Klamath River water is not available. Instead they act as if they are dependent on Klamath River water in order to be able to farm. But the fact is that most federal irrigators now have irrigation wells from which they can irrigate any time they choose.

Below is a graph showing purchase of groundwater within the Klamath Irrigation Project by the US Bureau of Reclamation between 2001 and 2010. Basically, water was purchased in every year of below average precipitation and snowpack. That groundwater was then supplied to irrigators, perhaps including the very irrigators who are members of the irrigation districts which sold Reclamation the water.


Figure 2. Supplemental groundwater volume purchased for the Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Irrigation Project, upper Klamath Basin, Oregon and California, 2001–10. Groundwater was not purchased in 2002, 2008, and 2009.           

The US Bureau of Reclamation purchasing groundwater in order to supply irrigation water to the very same irrigators who sold them the water highlights the species of corrupt practices which characterizes federal irrigation projects not just in the Klamath River Basin but across the West. Corrupt practices which benefit federal irrigators, but not other producers, is one of the reasons I identify federal irrigators as an Irrigation Elite.

The use of groundwater for irrigation has been documented by the US Geological Service. In their 2015 report “Effects of Groundwater Pumping on Agricultural Drains in the Tule Lake Subbasin, Oregon and California”USGS gives the amounts or groundwater extracted by federal irrigators prior to and after 2001:

Since 2001, groundwater pumping has increased in the Upper Klamath Basin in response to changes in surface-water management and to a series of drier-than-average years. Much of this increase was related to programs to supplement pumping for the Project. In 2000, total pumping in the upper Klamath Basin was estimated to be 150,000 acre-ft (not including supplemental pumping in Oregon). Additional pumping for the Project began in 2001 and reached 75,800 acre-ft by 2004. Of this additional pumping, 61,000 acre-ft took place in the Lower Klamath Lake subbasin and lower Lost River drainage, which includes the Tule Lake subbasin (Gannett and others, 2007). Supplemental groundwater pumping continued through 2007. No reported Project-sponsored supplemental groundwater pumping occurred in 2008 and 2009, but drought conditions in 2010 resulted in supplemental pumping of more than 100,000 acre-ft.

Groundwater extraction of 100,000 acre feet is enough water to irrigate crops on between 30,000 and 50,000 acres.

No “dust bowl”

The lack of the “dust bowl” that federal irrigators claimed was created in 2001 can also be verified using aerial and ground-based photographs and by examining the time series of Landsat images available on Google Earth Pro. Both confirm that in 2001 less irrigation water was used, with many irrigators growing more wheat and barley which require less water as compared to alfalfa hay and row crops. That decision reflects the higher cost of using groundwater for irrigation. While agriculture was impacted in 2001, the claim that providing Klamath River water for fish created a “dust bowl” is clearly a false claim:

Current irrigator claims

This year the Basin’s federal Irrigation Elite are again claiming that a “devastating lack of irrigation water” will create hardship, not just for growers but for workers and shopkeepers as well. Based on past experience, and in light of the extensive development of groundwater for irrigation since 2001, we are skeptical.

Fortunately, there is a way to check the veracity of federal irrigators claims of a “devastating lack of irrigation water” this year. Below is the Google Earth aerial image of the Klamath Irrigation Project’s main agricultural lands. The image was taken in May of this year, 2021.

Does this look like a “devastating lack of irrigation water” to you?

A “devastating lack of irrigation water” is extremely unlikely given the number of irrigation wells that have come on line since 2001. Here’s a map showing “production” (irrigation) wells in the main agricultural lands within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project:



Over the years I’ve observed that some individuals involved in agriculture believe that status gives them a license to lie at will. Because farming and ranching is so revered in this country, reporters usually accept and repeat the falsehoods without question and with no fact checking. Blind acceptance of the statements of federal irrigators and their organizations ought to end. Above all else, claims made by the Klamath Water Users Association merit fact checking.

We have shown above that federal irrigator claims that “devastating” social and economic consequences to farming and communities occur when Klamath River water is not available for irrigation are grossly exaggerated. Irrigation continues using groundwater whether or not the Bureau of Reclamation delivers Klamath River water. Any fall-off in agricultural production is the result of federal irrigators choices, not government actions.

When real world impacts to agriculture have occurred, federal taxpayer assistance has compensated federal irrigators for the loss of income. In some cases federal irrigators may have continued to farm using groundwater even while they were accepting government disaster payments based on a lack of federal irrigation water. Further investigation is warranted by the Department of Interior Inspector General to determine if some irrigators took disaster payments for acreage they continued to farm.

Since most federal irrigators now have the option of irrigating with groundwater, why do they create such a fuss when there is not enough Klamath River water available for irrigation? The answer is profits: Using groundwater for irrigation requires substantial extraction cost. When Reclamation puts water in the canals on the other hand, irrigators just take all they need with much lower pumping costs or using flood irrigation. Profits are significantly higher when a grower uses Klamath River water for irrigation as compared to when they use groundwater. But farming with groundwater is profitable; otherwise it would not occur.

A call for better reporting 

In light of the misrepresentation of impacts and conditions documented above, journalists reporting on Klamath River issues and editors penning related opinions should fact check claims made by federal irrigators and their organizations. In fact, we think claims made by federal tribes, commercial and sport fishing organizations, river organizations and independent advocates like KlamBlog also ought to be fact checked.

All interests put their “spin” on events and may bend the facts to fit their preferred narrative. It is the responsibility of reporters and editors to distinguish truth from the false and exaggerated claims which one sees on a regular basis whenever Klamath River water management is at issue.

Reporters, editors and, for that matter, students and any other member of the public with an internet connection can verify for themselves how much farming is actually going on anywhere within the Klamath River Basin at any time and compare that to what was happening in previous years. Google Earth Pro with its historical Landsat imagery is the tool that makes it possible to quickly fact check claims about how much irrigation is occurring.

The bottom line

When Klamath River water is not available, the Klamath River Basin’s federal irrigators have three options: They can farm as usual using groundwater, let their land lie fallow and accept disaster payments, or get paid by the NRCS to plant a cover crop and collect disaster payments.

Whatever choice individual federal irrigators make, they are going to come out financially whole (or nearly so) one way or the other. Furthermore, because groundwater for irrigation is readily and widely available, there is no reason why agricultural production within the 220,000 acre Klamath Irrigation Project must fall when Klamath River Water is not available. Because groundwater is widely available for irrigation, any fall-off in agricultural production is the result of irrigator choices, not a lack of irrigation water.

Recent reporting on Klamath River Basin water issues has stressed that “all sides” are going to feel pain this year. We have shown that is not true. Because they have ready access to groundwater, federal irrigators have the water they need to farm. Claims to the contrary are false claims.

I hope reporters and editors will use the tools provided above to fact-check claims and better inform the public about actual conditions in the Basin. Citizens of the Klamath River Basin have a right to know when the Klamath Water Users Association or others make false claims. If false and exaggerated claims are called out by reporters and editors, perhaps leaders and spokespersons will stop making them….or so we can hope.

Felice Pace is a longtime environmental activist in northern California. You can find his writings online at Bearitude in Black.