KLAMATH FALLS — For the second straight year, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has declared a drought emergency in Klamath County.

Brown signed an executive order March 31, citing lack of precipitation and low winter snowpack.

"Forecasted water conditions are not expected to improve, and drought is likely to have significant economic impacts on the farm, ranch, forest, recreation, drinking water and natural resources sectors, as well as impacts on fish and wildlife and other resources which are dependent on adequate precipitation and streamflow in these areas," the order states.

An emergency drought declaration gives state agencies the ability to expedite water management tools for affected producers, such as emergency water permits, exchanges, substitutions and in-stream leases.

As of April 2, total precipitation for the water year dating back to Oct. 1 was 70% of normal in the Klamath Basin, and snowpack was 78% of normal, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Much of Southern and Central Oregon is mired in severe to extreme drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows 12.5% of the state is in extreme drought, including the Klamath Basin, indicating heightened risk of wildfires, lower-than-normal reservoir levels, irrigation shortages and higher-than-normal river temperatures for fish.

The Klamath Project, which provides irrigation water for approximately 230,000 acres of farmland in Southern Oregon and Northern California, is facing a critical year, with record-low inflows coming in to Upper Klamath Lake.

Irrigators are now awaiting their water allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Jeff Payne, deputy regional director for the bureau, forecast 130,000 acre-feet of water for the project at the beginning of March — less than one-third of historical demand.

If that occurs, it would be the lowest allocation for the project on record since the shutdown of 2001.

On March 26, the Klamath Water Users Association sent a letter to Jared Bottcher, acting manager of the bureau's Klamath Basin Area Office, urging changes to the agency's interim operating plan for the Klamath Project.

The plan aims to balance the needs of agriculture with the survival of endangered fish, including shortnose and Lost River suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and salmon in the lower Klamath River.

The letter, signed by KWUA Executive Director Paul Simmons, points to "legal and technical defects" in the interim operating plan, which calls for both minimum water levels in Upper Klamath Lake for suckers and high enough streamflows in the lower Klamath River for salmon.

But in a previous interview, Payne said the bureau does not expect to have enough water this year to meet either of those thresholds.

"This will be a disastrous year for the farm and ranch families in the project, as well as the wildlife and migratory birds that depend on farm and ranch land and two of the most important wildlife refuges in the nation," the KWUA letter states.

"The agricultural community is already comparing this year to 2001, the year when in April, Reclamation announced zero deliveries for the project due to Endangered Species Act restrictions. That event was a shock to our rural communities. The impact cannot be overstated."

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