Parts of Klamath County irrigation system require major overhaul; Upper Klamath Lake and endangered suckerfish stand to benefit

The irrigation canals snaking through downtown Klamath Falls, from Upper Klamath Lake to the city of Merrill and beyond, rely heavily on the technology utilized by the ancient Egyptians. Upgrading and modernizing the system falls under the purview of Klamath Irrigation District’s Executive Director Gene Souza. He provided Klamath Tribes News with a tour and an opportunity to understand the challenges the District faces, as well as his vision for the future of the system. With Souza’s proposals, Upper Klamath Lake and its endangered c’waam and koptu suckerfish also stand to benefit.

For millennia, a circuitous water route existed, beginning in Clear Lake – residing at a higher elevation in California – and making a 175-mile journey northwest via Lost River before heading south again and depositing into Tule Lake, in which there has been no outlet for over 7,000 years. This water essentially became stuck in the basin, naturally creating some of the world’s most fertile soils.

Before the Reclamation Act of 1902, so-called “reclamation” projects would help irrigators “reclaim” arid lands for the production of food and fiber for human use; much of the area was marshland. During wet periods, Tule Lake grows from all the drainage. In the late 1800s, to prevent excess water from leaving the Klamath River, the people at the time built a dike across the Lost River Slough at the Klamath River to prevent the waters of the Klamath River from spilling into the Tule Lake Watershed. In the 1880s, private landowners and investors had already started laying the groundwork for a vast system of canals to augment what nature had already developed, Souza said.

In 1905, after the Reclamation Act was passed, the people of Klamath County voted to bring in the federal government to help them expand agricultural production in the area. Private entities, hoping to gain or improve arable land in the process, sold their interests to the federal government. Most of Ankeny Canal, built by private landowners, was expanded by the federal government in 1906 and was based upon plans initially developed by local investors.

Klamath Irrigation District, or K.I.D., expanded its role to take over operations and maintenance of the system in 1956 as a government entity under the state of Oregon. Souza currently oversees 58,000 acres in Klamath and Modoc counties. Today, K.I.D. acts as an intermediary between the federal government and water users – collecting taxes, or assessments, from irrigators while ensuring the irrigation system is regularly maintained through the assessed funds gathered from the District lands and upgraded by acquiring funding from a variety of sources.

Souza’s biggest challenges lie within A-Canal, which runs from Upper Klamath Lake through the town of Klamath Falls, and D-System, formerly known as the Adams Canal, which runs west to east above the town of Merrill.

For decades before 2001, excess water flowing into different destinations in the Klamath Basin was recognized as problematic but manageable. As conflict over water amounts increased, upgrading the irrigation system became necessary.

“Since 2001, the demand has been K.I.D. needs to be more efficient with your water,” Souza said. “You need to be taking less out of Upper Klamath Lake; you need to reuse what you have. And, so what we’ve done is maximize the use of a series of recirculation pumping plants.”

Pumping stations like Stukel and Adams allow Souza to recirculate water that might have ended up unwanted in Tule Lake to evaporate or be pumped to Lower Klamath Lake at a significant cost. “So instead of just taking the water from Upper Klamath Lake, allowing that water to do its natural thing and end up in Tule Lake,” Souza explained, “I’m now able to use these pumps to take that water and recirculate it, and put it back in the system and have less water I’m taking out of Upper Klamath Lake.”

However, these pumps were devised as early as the 1940s and installed shortly thereafter. They lack variable-speed drives and are not efficient power-wise.

“So, what I’m looking at for both these pumping plants, as well as the ability to control flows, is turning them on and off,” Souza said, explaining the importance of automation and variable speeds. “Right now, if I turn them on, it’s going full rate until I send someone physically to the site; I don’t have the ability to back it off to, say, half or 25 percent.”

These inadequacies severely inhibit K.I.D.’s ability to quickly and effectively manage flow rates between Upper Klamath Lake and Tule Lake, as water can take anywhere from 72-160 hours to make the 47-mile trip. Manually tending to the pumps is unrealistic, cost-prohibitive, and a safety issue.

Part of the D-System improvement plan is to upgrade these pumping stations to ensure better efficiency. Upgrading Stukel and Adams stations to Souza’s standards would require $1.2 million and $1.7 million respectively, Souza said. Updated sensors are being purchased for installation, and updated control modules are being designed. The updated sensors will be installed at 18 different locations, amounting to a $1 million project.

Adam’s Canal, built in 1884 and located just north of Lost River High School, forms a large curve in the D-System at Adam’s Point and is currently experiencing uncontrolled seepage. Souza, with input from engineers, recommends lining one mile of the canal to remedy the situation.

“The reason why I’m not piping that section is because currently the technology for pipe to get around that curve, trying to bend pipe or cut pipe,” Souza said. “It’s a little tough for the technology today. And I’m hoping that technology in time will give me a different option, one in which we can pipe it in the future. But I’ve got an immediate problem; I don’t want to wait too long.”

Earthen canals, like those maintained by K.I.D., are especially vulnerable to degradation, from animal burrowing to evaporation to saturation of soils. Souza suspects the seepage issue in D-System lies with clay materials, originally compacted against the rocks, being dried out and stripped away from the rocks.

Water can flow through Adam’s Point at 300 cubic feet per second. A robust system controls and data acquisition program replete with sensors will help Souza quickly recognize when a problem arises. “If I’m running 300 cubic feet per second, and something happens at two o’clock in the morning, how soon is someone going to notify me that I’ve got a problem,” he said, acknowledging the current state of the system.

Laterals extending south from D-System were originally built to spill water into Tule Lake. Souza wants to pipe 11 laterals through sandy soils in an effort to improve water flow. Water passing through the laterals as currently constructed faces resistance from vegetation. Piping the laterals will ultimately eliminate evaporation, seepage, and most spill. “I put water in the pipe, farmer needs water, he opens up his valve, and water comes out.”

Souza estimates $35 million will be required to address the select problem areas in D-System: updating the pumping plants, lining Adam’s Point, and piping 11 laterals extending south from D-System’s canal. He is seeking multiple funding sources for these projects – from federal sources like Public Law 566, which established the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act, to the state of Oregon. A cost-benefit analysis proved that it would be wisest to fix the D-System at present, according to Souza. “I’m going to have a water savings that’s measurable,” he said.

According to Mark Buettner, Director of the Klamath Tribes Ambodat Department, Souza’s proposals for upgrading D-System would also benefit endangered c’waam and koptu suckers, as agricultural water deliveries from Upper Klamath Lake can impact water levels that are needed to protect different life stages of the fishes.

“K.I.D.’s proposal for infrastructure improvements and canal lining in the D-canal system will lead to better water operations and less water diverted out of Upper Klamath Lake,” stated Buettner. “With less water available in the Upper Klamath Basin over the last two decades as a result of climate change and competing uses of the limited volume of water available in UKL to support c’waam and koptu, Klamath Irrigation Project farmers, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuges, and anadromous fishes in the Klamath River, projects like this are very beneficial to achieve sustainability and minimize future conflicts over water.”

The issues are abundant for A-Canal. In 2019, upon assuming his role as Director, Souza intended to address problems in the system from top to bottom, north to south. A-Canal was his first priority, with D-System being secondary.

However, renovating A-Canal to Souza’s vision is a $1 billion project. There are numerous stakeholders who receive benefits from the A-Canal, and many are not subject to the annual assessments levied by the District. “On the cheap, a $50 million project may mitigate some risk of canal failure,” Souza explained. “Unfortunately, $50 million will not resolve the larger issues of water seepage, evaporation losses, reducing the costs of maintaining bridges and utility crossings for the state, county, and city, nor increase public safety, nor address noted issues with the state, county, and city drainage. Getting investors to address the A-Canal has been challenging when various funding programs simply look at a cost-benefit analysis.”

The A Canal is an earthen canal that goes through an urban area, Souza said, elaborating on the technical difficulties of comprehensively addressing A-Canal’s problems. “The urban area wasn’t there when the canal was developed,” he added. “This was all farmland when it was developed. So, all the risk analysis: the cultural, the NEPA, the under crossings, the utilities, the bridges, working with the state; because Oregon State’s water runs off into the canal, the county’s water runs into the canal, the city’s water runs into it; the city’s bike path also has an element to it; another irrigation district, Enterprise Irrigation District above the A-Canal, has all their drainage coming through under it, so, it is complete chaos that’s up here.”

Fault lines traverse many of the canals, allowing hot springs and groundwater to seep into and out of the canal. Animal and even human burrowing is also a significant problem, weakening the canal bank structure. Earthen canals have seepage, and the location of the A-Canal on top of the natural hardpan allows the water that seeps out of the canal to move to unwanted locations instead of straight down to recharge the deeper aquifers.

Souza said the best option would be to pipe the entirety of A-Canal while putting solar panels and parkscapes on top. There are financial hurdles to clear before Souza can realize his vision.

“I’m lobbying,” Souza said, regarding finding the funds for A-Canal. “I’ve been working with Senator Jeff Merkley, staff, and others to try to find funding. I’ve been applying for all types of grant funding just for engineering. I’m working on trying to find multiple funding solutions.”