KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) - Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he expects to sign a state drought declaration for the Klamath Basin next week, but state and federal aid will not be enough to stave off hard times for farmers.
"If there is one thing I believe now, we will not be able to provide all the water ranchers and farmers need in the basin," Kulongoski told reporters Tuesday after listening to farmers, agricultural businessmen and the Klamath Tribes about the economic hardships they face without irrigation.
State and federal drought declarations will make emergency wells available, and some aid programs, but not enough to cover farmers for their losses, Kulongoski said.
"Can I make them whole?" Kulongoski said. "I don't believe there are enough federal or state resources to do that."
Kulongoski traveled to Klamath Falls to hear from federal biologists still working on how much of this year's short water supplies will be needed for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened salmon in the Klamath River before water can be released to the 1,300 farms on the Klamath Reclamation Project.
There is no timetable for a decision, but irrigation season normally begins April 1 with water flowing from Upper Klamath Lake and other reservoirs to ditches serving 200,000 acres. A drought in 2001 forced a shut-off to most of the project to protect fish, and when irrigation was restored later in the summer it was too late for many crops.
State Agriculture director Katie Coba said changes to the 2005 Farm Act meant farmers needed crop insurance to qualify for aid, and many local farmers had not signed up for it.
Longtime potato farmer Rob Unruh said after water was shut off in 2001 to protect fish, the little farming community of Malin lost its only gas station, the grocery store closed and the restaurant lost business. The acreage planted in potatoes on the project fell from 30,000 acres to 11,000 acres. If one irrigation is missed after potatoes are planted, their size and value drop.
"What we need most this year is water," he said. "If there are no water deliveries we need a local stimulus package or government bailout," of about $1,000 per acre.
Unruh and others said they need help to weather this crisis so the landmark Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement signed last month has a chance to work.
It still needs approval and funding from Congress to authorize extra water storage over the winter, payments to farmers for idling their land, and other measures to deal with droughts in the future.
"I absolutely believe that if this plan had been in place, let's say four years ago and we actually had it in operation now, we would be in a much better position now," Kulongoski said.
The agreement was negotiated over the past five years to bring peace to the basin after the drought of 2001 forced irrigation cutbacks that led to bitter divisions between farmers, Indian tribes, conservation groups and salmon fishermen.
Jeff Mitchell, a Klamath Tribes council member, noted that once again the tribes would harvest only two endangered suckers from Upper Klamath Lake as part of their annual first fish ceremony celebrating what once was a major food source.
"In tough times the government could either push us together or push us apart," Mitchell said. "I hope this time we pull together through this tough year helping each other stay on track and realize the potential peace and stability the (agreement) offers."
William Riggs, an Oregon State University associate professor, said Klamath County had $241 million in farm sales in 2008, down due to the recession from a typical level of $300 million, and agriculture was responsible for about 4,500 jobs.
Farm implement dealer Donnie Boyd got emotional describing how his business was not eligible for government aid that helped farmers weather the irrigation cutbacks of 2001.
"That's all right by me, but we can't do it two years in a row," he said.
Meanwhile, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley sent letters to the secretaries of Agriiculture, Interior and Commerce asking them to do what they could for Klamath farmers, such as buying upstream water rights, authorizing payments for idling farmland, and use of wells.
"Nothing short of an unprecedented, integrated and expansive set of responses is required," they wrote.