Basin farmers using well water to irrigate

MERRILL — For the first time in five years, Jim Carlton of Carlton Farms is using his well to irrigate his pasture and crops.

Before this year, Carlton Farms had access to full deliveries surface water from the A Canal for potatoes, grain, alfalfa and pasture. Now Carlton is paying about $4,000 a month for electricity to pump groundwater from his well, about two miles north of Merrill.

Surface water is "cheaper by a significant amount," he said.

As state and federal governments regulate which farmers receive surface water during this summer's drought, others are making do with a number of costly options — idling land, joining groundwater programs or pumping their own well water.

The thousands of dollars that Carlton pays to Pacific Power are on top of the Klamath Irrigation District fees, which pay for canal operation and maintenance, and the thousands of dollars to file for state-required drought permits to be able to pump his well water.

"You're still required to pay district charges whether you get water or not," Carlton said. "We're incurring the same costs as every other year, we just have the additional cost of pumping water."

Using groundwater instead of surface water also turned out to be costly in resources: When the city of Merrill's water tank went dry at the first of the month, it was because more people — residents, as well as farmers and ranchers — were using groundwater, taxing the aquifer's supply more than previous growing seasons.

To irrigate the nearly 2,000 acres of land he rents or owns, Carlton pumps water from his 550-foot well — the pump is at 80 feet — directly into a canal system that distributes water to land. He installed the well in 2003.

He started running the well in April with alfalfa crops; he's currently in a "critical period," where water is stretched over several crops, but at the beginning of August will be back in to a "comfort zone." Carlton said he's somewhat concerned that groundwater will drop below the reach of his well before the end of his irrigating season, just over two months away.

"Obviously it will have some impact (on groundwater levels) because it's pumping out of the ground, but how much impact is yet to be determined," he said.

Ultimately, adjusting his 101-year-old operation to a limited water supply will cost upward of an additional $50,000.

"Cost is an issue, but it costs a lot more to do nothing," he said.

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