The federal Bureau of Reclamation installed bulkheads into the A Canal headworks Wednesday morning, sealing the canal off from Upper Klamath Lake for the summer. (Klamath Falls Herald and News)

KLAMATH FALLS - The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced Wednesday that Klamath Project’s A Canal will remain closed for the 2021 irrigation season, meaning that irrigators’ initial allocation of 33,000 acre-feet of water has been reduced to zero.

Agency staff were seen lowering concrete bulkheads into the canal's headworks early Wednesday morning, cutting its fish screen off from Upper Klamath Lake and preventing any water from entering the canal.

It was a devastating scene for downstream farmers, who have relied on water from the lake to irrigate their crops for more than a century.

“The first water delivery from the A Canal was in 1907. This is the first year ever it will deliver zero water,” said Paul Simmons, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association.

Reclamation also announced that a Klamath River surface flushing flow, which would have mitigated salmon disease outbreaks below Iron Gate Dam, will not be implemented this year.

Upper Klamath Lake is sitting at an elevation of 4,140.5 feet, having declined nearly half a foot from its peak in early April. The current elevation is a foot and a half lower than what is required during April and May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent biological opinion, intended to maintain habitat for spawning C’waam and Koptu (Lost River and shortnose suckers).

The Klamath Tribes, who have depended on the lake's fish as a subsistence food source since time immemorial, have for decades caught only two suckers a year for ceremonial purposes. In a news release Wednesday, the Tribes said they take "zero pleasure" in learning that there will be no water for irrigation or a downriver flushing flow this year. They urged the Biden administration to make water management in the Basin more sustainable in the long-term.

“Our people have far too much experience with being cut-off from our means of subsistence, and we wish that pain on no one,” said Tribal Council Member Clay Dumont.

The Tribes said Reclamation now intends to keep Upper Klamath Lake above 4,138 feet, the minimum elevation stipulated in the USFWS biological opinion, through the rest of the year. Alex Gonyaw, a biologist for the Tribes, said those conditions must be met to avoid a fish kill of adult suckers, who after a lack of juvenile recruitment for more than 20 years are getting older and more susceptible to stress and predation.

The temporary operations plan proposed an initial water supply allocation for the Klamath Project of 33,000 acre-feet from Upper Klamath Lake, with a potential for more if hydrology were to improve. That number was already much lower than an average allocation, and would cause significant economic and environmental concerns for farmers and wildlife.

But instead of getting better, the Bureau said hydrologic conditions have since worsened instead. Following an exceptionally dry April, the May 1 NRCS forecast for Upper Klamath Lake inflow was 85,000 acre-feet below what was reported on April 1.

"This year’s drought conditions are bringing unprecedented hardship to the communities of the Klamath Basin. We have closely monitored the water conditions in the area and the unfortunate deterioration of the forecasted hydrology. This has resulted in the historic consequence of not being able to operate a majority of the Klamath Project this year,” said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.

Besides hydrology, Reclamation said “unauthorized” private diversions along the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake are consuming what little Project supply had been available. Klamath Drainage District, which owns the North Canal south of Lake Ewauna, has been operating the canal since mid-April to deliver water to some of its patrons and had diverted approximately 4,500 acre-feet from the river as of last Friday.

Reclamation has urged KDD to cease diversions, but the district said it has a state water right that allows it to divert live flow from the Klamath River in the event that Project deliveries are reduced or unavailable. In previous drought years, Reclamation has directed KDD to switch over to its state permit when winter irrigation deliveries were unavailable.

"These diversions, unless curtailed, together with Reclamation’s Endangered Species Act obligations, limit the remaining Klamath Project water supply," the Bureau wrote.

The A Canal typically provides more than 130,000 acres of farmland in the Project access to Upper Klamath Lake water. Langell Valley and Horsefly Irrigation Districts, on the east side of the Project, will still receive a small amount of water at the beginning of the summer from Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoirs, which are lower than normal.

Klamath Irrigation District Manager Gene Souza said a year without any water running through most of the Project's canals will negatively impact irrigation infrastructure in the future.

“The dried-out canals will crumble and crack. Significant animal damage to the infrastructure is already occurring at an alarming rate. We will have expensive repairs to address before we can deliver water in the future," Souza said. "The negative environmental impacts of this decision will have long-lasting negative impact on our groundwater, domestic wells, wildlife, culture, economy and communities.”

There's also concern that having no water on farmland that was originally lakebed will negatively impact groundwater recharge and reduce habitat and food for migratory birds in the Klamath Basin.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, once a bird mecca, can expect no water from the Project this year. Farmers who have contracts to flood irrigate on refuge leaselands won't be able to provide wetland habitat or food for birds, either.

“Normally we see and hear waterfowl, reptiles and amphibians throughout the Project,” said KWUA president Ben DuVal. “With no birds, it will be the worst kind of quiet out here.”

Simmons said legal issues regarding the Endangered Species Act, which directs Reclamation to produce required flows for salmon and lake levels for suckers often at the expense of Project irrigators, need to be resolved.

“We also need a dose of common sense," he said. "The Project stored water is the only knob that can be turned, but that is not helping species. That has to hit home some day with federal decision-makers.”

While the impacts on all Basin communities, including ag, will be devastating this summer, DuVal urged local people to keep the peace. KWUA leadership fears that outside interests could use irrigators' struggle as a soapbox.

“We do not want our crisis to be hijacked for other causes," DuVal said. "That will detract attention from our problem and diminish the voice of this community.”

The Klamath Tribes urged the federal government to go beyond single-year fixes and better adapt the Basin's water management to drought, arguing that Upper Klamath Lake's water is overallocated.

“The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results," said Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry. "Until this Basin adapts to a drier future, we will continue to find ourselves facing these conflicts."