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With Klamath Basin in drought, farmers worry their troubles will worsen in summer

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MALIN, Oregon — After returning to Southern Oregon from a four-year tour in the U.S. Army, Paul Crawford decided it was time to follow in his family's footprints and put down some roots.

In 2011, the 26-year-old veteran, born and raised in Malin, purchased the home he grew up in and a 40-acre parcel of land.

For as long as Crawford can remember, he's been farming. After his father gave up farming when Crawford was a young boy, he continued learning the ropes by helping his grandfather produce 800 acres of hay each year.

"If you grow up on a farm, you either love it or you hate it. And if you don't grow up on a farm, there's no way to explain what goes into it," he said.

Crawford married his wife, Ally, in 2012, and the couple now has two children, Hesston, 3, and Paisley, 16 months. Together the couple owns 110 acres. Only 40 of those acres are irrigated this year — and that water is being purchased from someone else's farm.

This year is Crawford's fourth year farming — it's also the Basin's fourth consecutive year of drought. He said market prices should be a primary concern, but considering all of his land is designated as "Warren Act" acreage — which received a zero water allocation this year — market prices take a back seat.

"I should worry about the weather, and in the winter I do. But I should worry about the weather when I'm deciding when to cut hay, and I should worry about what the market's going to do, but I don't.

"I worry about whether we've got water or whether we are going to finish the season. This year, are we even going to start the season?"

Water worry never subsides, according to Ally.

"Literally, our lives depend on the water. I look at the weather and water as how I feed my children," she said. "It's terrifying."

Low on the allocation list

In April, the Bureau of Reclamation announced the Klamath Project would only receive 254,500 acre-feet, about 65 percent of the Project's historic demand. But that water wouldn't cover all the Project's 210,000 cropland acreage. Warren Act — also known as "B'' — contractors received a lower priority than "A'' contractors, leaving them with no water and fallow fields.

The initial allocation has been reduced to a range of somewhere between 210,000 acre-feet and 175,000 acre-feet, further ensuring farmers with Warren Act land won't see a drop of surface water this year.

According to Matt Vickery, deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association, Warren Act land — which helps support a $600 million-per-year industry — is spread across several irrigation districts.

"Eleven out of 15 Project irrigation districts are shut off," Vickery said.

The 2,900-acre Enterprise Irrigation District (EID), made up entirely of Warren Act land, has not received one surface water delivery this year.

"With us depending on inflows from snowmelt, it wasn't a complete shock, but to have a zero allocation came as a little bit of a surprise," said EID manager Shane McDonald.

George Rajnus, president of the 10,282-acre Klamath Basin Improvement District (another district made up entirely of Warren Act land), raised his first potato crop when he was 12 years old. Rajnus said he's "a fighter" and he's not giving up; instead, he and the rest of his district are just "doing without, plain and simple."

"After you've been shut off enough, you almost become immune to it. You just say, 'It figures,' " he said.

Rajnus said recent rains have helped green up some of his district's ground, but relying on the weather is not a lasting solution.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Southern Klamath County and much of Modoc County remain designated in "extreme" drought.

On Friday, the Natural Resources Conservation Service reported the Basin's snowpack was zero percent of normal. According to Brett Lutz, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Medford, snow disappeared from the measuring station at Crater Lake National Park on May 11. He said bare ground normally doesn't appear at the station until early to mid-July.

Although experts predict the first week of June could provide some relief in the form of cooler temperatures and precipitation, temperatures are expected to spike back up mid-month.

"Our expectation for the summer is the drought impacts are going to increase," Lutz said.

Ripple effect enormous

According to Vickery, the Basin's $600 million ag industry is made up of two components: $300 million is generated by the Klamath Project farmers and upper Basin ranchers and another $300 million is generated by the industry's dollars trickling through local businesses.

For every $1 million generated by the ag industry, nine direct jobs and six indirect jobs are created, Vickery said. If the Project produces half of the industry's economy, and if the Project only receives half its water allocation, the hit to Basin jobs could be disastrous.

"That could be as many as 1,000 jobs impacted this year," Vickery said.

At Basin Fertilizer, employees' hours are based on how much work is available, according to co-owner Bob Gasser. He noted that the average Basin Fertilizer employee has been with the company for more than 30 years, but that could soon change. Several of his employees' hours have been cut back and as a result, at least one person has already decided to move on.

"It's on their minds all the time," Gasser said.

He noted that in the Merrill and Malin area — Crawford's neck of the woods — at least 30,000 acres are not being farmed.

'It's going to be a very tough year. It's not a year to build; it's just a year to survive," Gasser said.

Ron Linman, sales manager at Klamath Basin Equipment, said his employer began feeling the pinch the minute water managers hinted deliveries might be curtailed. He estimates the business' overall ag season sales will be short by at least 25 percent.

"We haven't had to lay anyone off, but we're watching everything. We're keeping things as tight as possible," Linman said.

"Ag is huge in this Basin, and it affects us immediately."

Gasser said he believes things could get "increasingly worse as the summer rolls on."

"It's going to cost this county a lot of money if we continue down this path. It's not just my business; it's every business in the Basin," Gasser said.

Water pact a necessity

The boon Crawford and many other farmers circle back to is the water certainty that could be created if the Klamath water settlements were signed into law.

The settlement, titled the Klamath Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act (SB 133), encompasses the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement — both finalized in 2010 — and the 2014 Upper Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. The bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation aimed at improving water and riparian conditions for fish and other species, while creating water certainty for Basin irrigators.

"With the water settlements fully implemented, the Project would have received 340,000 acre-feet of water this year," Vickery said. "That's a lot more than the allocation we have now."

According to Hank Stern, a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Wyden introduced the bill earlier this year and it's awaiting a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wyden co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

"(Wyden) knows full well the importance of a Klamath Basin settlement for all the stakeholders and is working hard to achieve a balanced approach that best serves all those groups so the entire community can move forward with the certainty it needs. ... He looks forward to seeing those agreements become the law of the land," Stern said.

According to Merkley spokeswoman Courtney Warner Crowell, Merkley is continuing his efforts to move forward the Klamath Settlement Agreements.

"In light of the drought conditions throughout the Klamath Basin, and across Oregon and the entire Western region, Sen. Merkley is more committed than ever to find a solution for the Klamath Basin," she said.

Investment gamble

For Crawford, helping his grandfather farm hay was a life-shaping experience.

"When I was a kid, this is what I wanted; this is what I've wanted to do since I was little. I loved it," he said.

Despite Crawford's passion for agriculture, he knows every year is a gamble.

Last year, he managed to transfer just enough water to save his aging alfalfa crop. This year's plan was to plant alfalfa in another parcel and rotate the old crop out.

"Without water, that was impossible," he said.

Crawford noted that even if he was able to plant a new alfalfa crop, it could be two or three years before he saw a return on investment.

"It's hard when you don't have the sense that there will be at least two years in a row I could start alfalfa and then maybe see some return," he said.

The uncertainty also makes it difficult to envision his family's future in farming.

"If things work out, maybe one day in 50 years, I can say, 'Here you go, Hesston,' and give him an opportunity," Crawford said.


Information from: Herald and News, http://www.heraldandnews.com

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