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Regional Interests

USDA announces funding relief for Klamath Basin producers

As the Klamath Basin continues to be plagued by drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it will invest $15 million to assist agricultural producers. Mark Johnson is the deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association. He joins us with details on how the funding will help producers in the region.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced more drought relief for farmers in the Klamath Basin. It’s allocating $15 million. That is on top of an earlier $15 million from the Bureau of Reclamation. So how will these grants work? And will they be enough? Mark Johnson joins me to answer those questions, and more. He is the Deputy Director of the Klamath Water Users’ Association. Mark Johnson, welcome back.

Mark Johnson: Yes, thank you for having me.

Miller: What difference will this new pot of money make?

Johnson: This will be extremely beneficial to the folks who are unable to irrigate their lands this year. Essentially, we’re looking at, I’d say 75% of project, if not more, irrigators were not able to irrigate, so they left their land idle which they just did nothing with. So hopefully it’ll get folks through until next year, help them with their payments, mortgages and all their equipment and everything like that. So we are extremely appreciative of this additional funding coming through the Drought Response Agency.

Miller: What you just said reminds me of one of the conversations we had when we were in the Basin just a couple weeks ago. Which is that, for the most part, a lot of irrigators’ costs remain the same. Even if they don’t have something in the ground, they still have to pay for all kinds of equipment or leases or insurance or whatever, even if they’re not making money from the ground. Do you know yet who is actually going to be eligible for this money?

Johnson: Yes. Folks who are eligible, basically anybody in the Klamath Project who adhered to the 2021 Operations Plan put out by the Bureau of Reclamation who did not put any surface water on their grounds are eligible for this program. Similar to the guidelines in the non-irrigation program through the Klamath Drought Response Agency. Though the sign up period for that just ended. But, a new sign up period is going to start up anytime once this USDA contract is finalized which will be in the next day or so.

Miller:  Has that first pot of $15 million from a different federal agency… the Bureau of Reclamation, which I think is with the Department of the Interior, not Agriculture... has that money already gone out the door and gone into you know the pocketbooks of irrigators?

Johnson: It has not been allocated yet. It is in the account but has not been distributed yet. We just had the sign up period that ended last week. Now they’re going through the applications, making sure everything is good and we’ll double check everything and then they will get checks out to producers as soon as possible.

Miller: So in total, this is $30 million.  What’s your estimate for how much money it would take to approximate even just an okay water year, in terms of what farmers could have expected if they were growing a regular number of hay cuttings, for example?

Johnson: Ooh, that’s extremely variable. Ideally with the circumstances we’re under this year, and we did not divert any surface water at all. This is the first year in over 100 years. No water from Upper Klamath Lake was actually applied to crops. We’re looking at, I’d say, several, let’s say $300 per acre, or so for folks to get through what they would make off of it.  Then what it takes... like you mentioned, you’ve got to pay mortgages, you got paid for equipment, fuel, leases and all that. So it is actually very expensive just to sit and have your land idle. It is likely it will take more than $30 million, with the interest in the program thus far, for 2021.

Miller: So I understand that it’s hard to do all the accounting, especially on the fly. But it seems like what you’re saying is that while you’re thankful for this Federal announcement and a doubling of the Federal relief money that was going to be available. Still, this money is not going to be enough.

Johnson: It will definitely be beneficial. It is hard to say. It’s early. We don’t really know that overall interest in the program yet. But yes, it will be likely that just due to the unprecedented circumstances for this year, more will likely be needed. But this will definitely help us and carry us forward in a very beneficial way.

Miller: It’s been a little while since you and I talked last. I’m curious what you’re hearing from Irrigators these days, just about what they’re going through.

Johnson: This year is at a level I’ve never seen before. A lot of folks... years like this we’re coming off of a year, like last year was similar. We actually did divert water from Upper Klamath Lake. Not a full supply, but still a lot of assistance was given out to producers. This year, it was just a non-starter for folks. They couldn’t get anything in the ground. It’s been a very, very hot and dry spring and summer, as you know, and a lot of folks... it’s that make it or break it and just people just want to find answers and find a comprehensive solution to help us get through years like this. Ultimately, the funding is absolutely amazing and [we’re] very appreciative of it. In the long run, folks just want to have water to carry on with their livelihoods.

Miller: In other words, they don’t want federal relief money, they want water.

Johnson: Exactly.

Miller: One concern that we heard when we were in the Basin is that an increased reliance on wells for irrigation. Because some farmers have been able to draw on wells in the absence of surface water, that doing that could mean that people’s domestic wells for home use for drinking water, for example, that those would dry up. And recent reporting makes it clear that that Is actually happening right now. The people’s fears have actually come true. According to the Associated Press, officials have estimated that 300 wells may have gone dry. So this is yet another layer to this unfolding water crisis. What do you think this means for the Basin?

Johnson: And, interestingly enough, there are I’d say about 1,800 wells located along the main diversion point from Upper Klamath Lake. So with having surface water in the canals, the natural seepage actually recharges the shallow aquifers where a lot of those wells are.Also, like you mentioned, there are folks pumping groundwater who have access to it with emergency drought permits. But yes, we and folks are real cognizant of depleting the resource because it just means we’re at a worst place to start off 2022 if you don’t pay attention to what they’re pumping right now. So, it’s a blessing to have it, as well as a curse. You got a basically cost benefit analysis on that and people are really cognizant of that, like I mentioned. Also as I mentioned, the lack of surface water in the canals because there are over 700 miles of canals on the Klamath Project and another 700 miles of drains. So you think about all those canals, having water them at any given time. That is a lot of water over the surface of the land to seep in to assist in recharging the aquifers, and we just don’t have that this year.

Miller: Mark Johnson, thanks for joining us once again, I appreciate it.

Johnson: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Miller: That’s Mark Johnson, Deputy Director of the Klamath Water Users’ Association.

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