Drought in the Klamath River Basin

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Drought in the Klamath River Basin
June 8, 2021
Historic drought conditions in the Klamath River Basin (Figure 1) have received national attention and
have led to increased conflicts among water users and other stakeholders. The basin includes the Bureau
of Reclamation’s Klamath Project, which delivers irrigation water to approximately 230,000 acres in
Southern Oregon and Northern California. The Klamath Basin has a history of debates related to water
al ocation and species protection. In the past, these issues have generated conflict among farmers, Indian
tribes, fishermen, water project and wildlife refuge managers, environmental groups, hydropower facility
operators, and state and local governments.
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Figure 1. Klamath River Basin

Source: Bureau of Reclamation, adapted by CRS.
Much of the Klamath Basin relies on economic activity generated by irrigated agriculture. Water supplies
from both the federal Klamath Project and other “off project” sources of water support basin agriculture.
Other major users of Klamath Project water include six national wildlife refuges that sustain migratory
bird habitat and several Native American tribes that rely on Basin fish species. Currently, two species of
upper basin fish (Lost River and shortnose sucker) are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species
(ESA; P.L. 93-205) and one species of lower basin fish (coho salmon) is listed as threatened under
the ESA. The basin also contains seven dams on the Klamath River and its tributaries, built between 1918
and 1962. PacifiCorp, a regulated utility, owns six of these dams (known as the Klamath Hydroelectric

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Project). The original Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license to operate these dams
expired in 2006; FERC has since extended operations in multiple temporary annual licenses.
The Klamath Project has a history of conflicts associated with water deliveries. Most prominently, in
2001, Reclamation, at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS), significantly curtailed water deliveries to the Klamath Project to provide more
water for endangered fish. Irrigators protested these actions. Later in 2001, the George W. Bush
Administration directed additional water for irrigation. In 2002, irrigators received significantly more
water than in the previous year, but thousands of Chinook salmon died on the lower part of the Klamath
River, largely due to poor water conditions and fish health in that part of the basin.
Congress has provided multiple appropriations in response to previous issues in the basin. In the 2001 and
2002 farm bil s (P.L. 107-20 and P.L. 107-171, respectively), Congress provided the U.S. Department of
Agriculture with $20 mil ion and $50 mil ion in funding, respectively, for water conservation in the
Klamath Basin, in addition to funding under other emergency authorities. Congress also appropriated
supplemental funds, including $60 mil ion to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in
2007 (P.L. 110-28) for a 2006 fishery failure determination under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery
Conservation and Management Act
(16 U.S.C. §§1861(a) and 1864), as wel as $10 mil ion for
Reclamation drought activities in the basin in 2010 (P.L. 111-212).
Also in response to earlier conflicts, the federal government facilitated talks among multiple groups,
including formal negotiations between 2006 and 2010. The resulting agreements—the Klamath Basin
Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA)—aimed
to resolve long-standing issues in the basin. The KBRA proposed actions to restore Klamath fisheries and
support tribes, and it provided assurances for water deliveries to wildlife refuges and project irrigators.
The KHSA outlined a process to remove four of PacifiCorp’s dams on the Klamath River. These
agreements were proposed but not enacted in prior Congresses. Removal of the four PacifiCorp dams has
proceeded, with the federal government no longer directly involved in dam removal. At the same time,
Reclamation continues to operate the Klamath Project under recent biological opinions (BiOps) under the
ESA for listed sucker and salmon species.
Recent Drought and Federal Response
In 2021, the Klamath Basin is facing one of its worst droughts in four decades. Water deliveries are at
historical y low levels (Figure 2); Reclamation al ocated 33,000 acre-feet for irrigators. On May 12,
2021, Reclamation announced the closure of the Klamath Project “A” canal, a major source of project
releases. The agency also said it would not implement Klamath River surface flushing flows for salmon
(an action it normal y conducts pursuant to the ESA) during the current water year.
Reclamation determined that 2021 hydrological conditions are preventing, and wil continue to prevent, it
from operating the Klamath Project in a manner consistent with the BiOps. Per terms in the BiOps,
Reclamation conferred with FWS and NMFS and created a Temporary Operations Plan (TOP) to manage
water to address immediate and temporary competing needs, including the needs of al threatened and
endangered species. Reclamation wil use the TOP to operate the Klamath Project in an adaptive manner
using real-time monitoring and forecasting, and it wil coordinate with FWS and NMFS to implement
deviations from this plan.

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Figure 2. Klamath Project Water Allocations, 2001-2021

Source: CRS, based on Bureau of Reclamation data.
Notes: Does not reflect supply for areas served exclusively by Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoirs. The 2001 al ocation
does not reflect mid-season releases or water made available through emergency groundwater wel s.
In response to the drought, the federal government has provided additional aid, including $15 mil ion in
immediate aid to the Klamath Project Drought Relief Agency announced in April 2021, plus $3 mil ion in
trial technical assistance for ecosystem activities in the basin. The Secretaries of the Interior and
Agriculture issued a joint statement declaring their intent to coordinate resources and identify immediate
financial and technical assistance for impacted irrigators and tribes. The Department of the Interior also
withdrew several Trump Administration determinations related to basin water supplies because the
determinations “were issued without government-to-government consultation with affected Tribes and do
not reflect the current administration’s goals for long-term water recovery and economic restoration.”

Author Information

Charles V. Stern
Pervaze A. Sheikh
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Congressional Research Service

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