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Water allotment to farmers in the Klamath Basin hindering food production amid high market

A snapshot of one of Scott Seus's fields in April 2022. The Seus family farm has grown in size from 72 acres to over 2000 acres in size, and operation Scott Seus now runs with the help of other farmers leasing their land. (Tyler Myerly/ KTVL)
A snapshot of one of Scott Seus's fields in April 2022. The Seus family farm has grown in size from 72 acres to over 2000 acres in size, and operation Scott Seus now runs with the help of other farmers leasing their land. (Tyler Myerly/ KTVL)
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Many farmers across the Klamath Basin are currently in the stages of planting their crops following the first few water deliveries from irrigation districts. However, with a drought emergency gutting the Basin's water supply and only 50,000 acre feet of surface water allocated by the Bureau of Reclamation one farmer says the impacts of another low production year will continue to hurt the community and the farming industry.

“It's about to get a lot worse because the entire west is in this situation and food scarcity is going to be a real thing this year,” said Scott Seus, a farmer and Tulelake Irrigation district board member.

Seus' farming roots date back to 1946 when his grandfather Edward Seus put his name in a pickle jar and was drawn for a Tulelake homestead after his time with the US Coast Guard. The Seus' have been adapting their farming practices since the day they arrived to find their lakeside homestead to be a fertile, drained former lakebed.

According to Seus, a full allotment that would irrigate every farm across the Klamath Basin today is between 350,000 and 400,000 acre-feet of surface water. The 50,000 acre-feet they’re receiving this year is 15% of that total and will have huge impacts on the output of production. However, the Bureau of Reclamation is required to keep Upper Klamath Lake at substantial levels through July and can't allot more than 50,000 acre-feet in order to protect the C'waam, or Longnose suckerfish, and the Koptu, or Shortnose suckerfish, protected under the Endangered Species Act.

By combining production data from other farmers in the basin and food consumption data from the USDA, Seus made a spreadsheet that shows food outputs based on water inputs in the Klamath Basin.

Potatoes are one major crop grown in Tulelake. According to Seus’ model, a good production year with a full allotment of water would be able to yield over 8 billion pounds of potatoes and feed over 73 million people a year. If the Klamath Basin farmers used only the 50,000 acre-feet of surface water allotted this year and didn’t use any groundwater or surface water from the Lost River, potato farmers in the basin could expect to produce around 1 billion pounds of potatoes and feed 10.5 million people.

Last year, with no surface water from the Klamath Project and only groundwater from private wells and/or wells and alternative water sources from the three irrigation districts, the Klamath Basin produced 16.7% less potatoes than in 2020.

“The opportunity costs, especially on a year like this is what's really, really painful because we are missing excessively high markets,” Seus said.

According to a March report from the USDA, farm-level vegetable prices are predicted to increase between 8 and 11% in 2022 and are over 80% higher than prices observed in March 2021. This doesn’t reflect retail price increases but instead is a measure of the average prices paid to domestic producers for their output.

It’s not just the vegetable market that will be missed this year either. Amid uncertainties in agricultural outputs tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the USDA shows wheat and alfalfa are also in high demand. Seus said that farmers across the U.S. that can grow crops this year will benefit from high markets, but farmers in the west are suffering from limited water.

Driving through the basin, Seus pointed out a handful of fields that received little or no water the year prior. He pointed out alfalfa fields that will most likely go dry by July and won't be harvested.

“He never harvested a crop off of it and this year he's in the same boat,” Seus said, pointing out a neighboring farm. “So he's going to walk away from it and he's giving up that investment because he has nothing to provide to the crop.”

The other rising cost associated with the conflict in Russia according to the USDA is the spike in fertilizer costs. Seus said it's costing him over a thousand dollars an acre in fertilizer costs right now to raise a crop of mint conventionally. He said those are costs that the producer most times has to swallow rather than passing on to the consumer.

“Those are big expenditures that you don't plan for and that you have to go to the bank to borrow to make it happen,” Seus said. “I'm incurring debt so that I can try to satisfy my customers, my employees, and also the bank.”

While farmers are optimistic about their production this year, they’re still overwhelmed with the costs associated with the limited water supply in the Klamath Basin. Each drought-stricken year and lack of water from the Klamath Project has pushed farmers and ranchers to seek more water-efficient infrastructure. Stakeholders within the Tulelake Irrigation District have an advantage because unlike Klamath Irrigation District and Klamath Drainage District, they have access to ten large irrigation wells from the State of California to pump groundwater as well as access to the Lost River.

Many farmers have ditches throughout their property that hold surface water and water pumped out from wells. With drier and hotter years becoming more common, Seus said the BOR is recommending laying piping infrastructure and closing in the ditches to preserve water and reduce evaporation.

Seus said while he’s on board with water-efficient practices, piping everything poses two issues. The first is the major costs associated with new infrastructure: the well on one of his plots cost nearly $500,000 to drill.

He’s in the process of changing the system over to an electric system to improve efficiency but supply chain issues have significantly slowed down the process. In the meantime, he’s been sticking to a diesel-generated pumping system but the high price of diesel fuel right now is adding strain.

Seus said it’s worth it in the sense that it produces the groundwater that he needs, but the well itself cost him more than two parcels of his land.

“I'm essentially having to buy my land twice for the sake of being able to grow a crop on it to turn a profit,” Seus said. “Because without it, I've just got worthless land.”

The other issue Seus said is the loss of habitat that would happen as a result of closing in ditches. Every water ditch and canal that runs through Seus’ property, much like others in the Basin, now replace the wetlands that used to connect the Upper Klamath Lake and Tule Lake, sustaining waterfowl and other small animals.

“This water infrastructure is part of their habitat so if that all goes away because we pipe it, we're not really doing what nature intended here,” Seus said.

Near his home, he pointed out where frogs and deer used to be along the property line. Animals he said rarely come by anymore compared to 20 years ago.

“I like hearing nature but when you take the water out of these ditches and it's completely dry, it's an awkward silence out here because there's no sounds of nature where there is no water,” Seus said.

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