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Thur. 9:58 a.m.: ‘Trying to survive’: Wells dry up amid Oregon water woes

Misty Buckley carries dirty water from her animals' pens to water plants in her front yard, Saturday. in Klamath Falls, Ore. The Buckley's house well ran dry in May following an historic drought in southern Oregon. Dozens of domestic wells have gone dry in an area near the Oregon-California border where the American West's worsening drought has taken a particularly dramatic toll. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

MALIN, Ore. (AP) — Judy and Jim Shanks know the exact date their home’s well went dry — June 24.

Since then, their life has been an endless cycle of imposing on relatives for showers and laundry, hauling water to feed a small herd of cattle and desperately waiting for a local well-drilling company to make it to their name on a monthslong wait list.

The couple’s well is among potentially hundreds that have dried up in recent weeks in an area near the Oregon-California border suffering through a historic drought, leaving homes with no running water just a few months after the federal government shut off irrigation to hundreds of the region’s farmers for the first time ever.

Officials have formal reports of 117 empty wells but suspect more than 300 have gone dry in the past few weeks as the consequences of the Klamath River basin’s water scarcity extend far beyond farmers’ fields.

Worried homeowners face waits of six months or more to get new, deeper wells dug because of the surging demand, with no guarantee that those wells, too, won’t ultimately go dry.

Some are getting by on the generosity of neighbors, or hauling free water from a nearby city. The state also is sending in a water truck and scrambling to ship more than 350 emergency storage tanks from as far as Oklahoma amid a nationwide shortage of the containers due to drought-induced demand across the U.S. West.

Judy Shanks, a volunteer ambulance driver, and her husband are surviving on 5-gallon jugs she fills at her mother’s house, and have already sold several cows.

“Come December, if we don’t get some storms in here and we don’t see any changes, I’ll probably sell everything because we can’t hang on,” she said.

While much of the West is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, the toll on everyday life is particularly stark in this region filled with flat vistas of sprawling alfalfa and potato fields and normally teeming wetlands.

This summer’s already critical water shortages have been amplified by a mandate to preserve water levels for two species of endangered suckerfish in a key lake that’s also the primary source of irrigation water for 200,000 acres of farmland.

“It’s kind of hard to look forward and see good things,” said Justin Grant, a farmer who lost irrigation water and whose home now also has a dry well. “I’m trying to wrap my head around how to get through the season.”

In the past, water from Upper Klamath Lake was released each spring from a dam controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and flowed into a vast network of irrigation canals. That system feeds fields converted from marshy lakes to arable land by the government more than a century ago.

The amount of water allocated to farmers varies yearly based on lake levels, and already in recent years it had been reduced.

This year, however, the bureau said because of unusually low lake levels caused by severe drought it could not release any water at all without imperiling the suckerfish. Now, some farmers are drawing instead from deep wells that dot the region, depleting groundwater at the shallower depths tapped by homeowners.

“This is something that you don’t really think of having to deal with in a country like ours,” said Klamath County Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris. “It’s unimaginable to me even though it’s going on right in my community.”

Some water also leaks from the irrigation canals every growing season, superficially replenishing the groundwater. But those canals have run dry, said Brad Kirby, manager of the Tulelake Irrigation District, just south of the California border.

Experts say several factors — years of paltry rain and snow, record-setting heat and raging wildfires driven by climate change — are inexorably changing the region’s ecology.

Oregon’s Water Resources Department, which monitors groundwater levels, recorded the lowest inflow of water ever into the Upper Klamath Lake this spring, setting the stage for a disastrous summer.

“In some wells, we’re seeing a drop of 40 or 50 feet so far this season,” said Ivan Gall, field services administrator for the agency. “It is a lot.”

And there is no guarantee the groundwater will fully recharge when it rains and snows again, he said. In 2010, another year when farmers pumped a lot of groundwater because of drought, the aquifer dropped permanently between 4 and 5 feet, he said.

“You can see how interconnected all of this is,” Gall said, calling it a “cascade effect” of competing demands.

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