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Groups sue feds over Klamath River flows

Flows reduced to keep more water in Upper Klamath Lake amid drought.

Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

March 28, 2023

4 Min Read
Klamath River fishing
Fishing on the Klamath River.Oregon State University

In a case that could hamper water deliveries for farmers, a Northern California tribe and two fisheries groups are suing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over its decision in February to reduce flows in the Klamath River to keep more water in the Upper Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon.

The Yurok Tribe joined the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisheries Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources in bringing the action in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, arguing the cutback will leave too little water in the river to protect threatened coho salmon and endangered resident killer whales.

Federal officials say that despite the wet winter in much of the West, the hydrology of the Klamath Basin is still affected by a multi-year drought. The BOR cut flows from Iron Gate Dam into the Klamath River by approximately 11% (105 cubic-feet-per-second) on Feb. 13, with plans to adaptively manage flow levels through April 1.

The tribe and fisheries groups argue the move reduced flows to below the mandatory minimum set under the federal Endangered Species Act to preserve extremely at-risk coho salmon stocks. The water reduction will dry up critical habitat for juvenile coho and Chinook or king salmon, the groups say.

The reduction comes as federal fisheries managers are poised to shut down the ocean commercial salmon fishing season in California and much of Oregon due to this year’s dismal Chinook salmon forecast. The Yurok Tribe has announced it will cancel its commercial fishery for the fifth straight year to protect fish runs.

Related:Work begins on Klamath dam removals

“The flow reduction is unacceptable and unjustifiable given this winter’s heavy rainfall,” Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers said in a release sent to reporters. “Dropping flows below the bare minimum is the nuclear option. We repeatedly asked BOR to take a more measured approach to water management, but they refused to listen. Our only recourse was to petition the court to reverse this terrible decision and protect our most sacred resource.”

The groups seek to stop water deliveries for irrigation until the agency meets minimum water flow requirements for the river.

The bureau contends its adaptive management approach aims to address limited available water supply in the Klamath Basin, given potential future hydrology scenarios and competing needs for listed species in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River.

Competing needs

These needs include Upper Klamath Lake elevations for endangered suckers and providing Klamath River flows, and a spring pulse flow for salmon disease mitigation to protect the salmon and whales, officials say.

Related:Tribes, growers spar over Klamath River flows

The Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts in the Klamath Basin straddling the Oregon-California state line, has said flow reductions in the river are necessary to preserve lake levels.

"Upper Klamath Lake is not filling and all projections are for that condition to persist well into 2023," KWUA water policy director G. Moss Driscoll wrote in a letter to federal agencies last fall. "Three years of conflict, controversy, and hardship in the Klamath Basin have demonstrated that, in the wake of the current ongoing drought, simply continuing the present rate of releases out of Upper Klamath Lake is the worst possible outcome for fish, wildlife, and humans alike."

The dispute is only the latest in an endless series of battles over water in the Klamath River watershed, which meanders from high-elevation flatlands in Southern Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Farmers in the Klamath Basin have sparred for decades with Native American tribes and downstream fishing interests for supplies that usually fall short of demands.

Work is finally beginning on the controversial removal of four hydroelectric dams from the river to improve spawning access for fish -- a project expected to be mostly completed by next year. Though the dams don't provide water for irrigation, some growers and political leaders fear the dams' removal will drive up energy costs and perhaps lead to reductions in water for farms.

BOR built and manages the more-than-century-old Klamath Irrigation Project to provide irrigation deliveries to 225,000 agricultural acres straddling the state line. The plaintiffs say BOR created the latest shortfall when it increased water deliveries to agricultural users last year, despite the risk to salmon.

The groups say Reclamation also failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency tasked with protecting salmon under the ESA. An NMFS spokesperson declined to comment to KQED in San Francisco, citing pending litigation.

"We are deeply disappointed by the BOR’s decision to cut river flows. We just broke ground on the biggest salmon restoration project in history and BOR’s actions threaten to undermine this progress, " said Amy Cordalis, legal counsel for the Yurok Tribe and a tribal member. "The Klamath River and its salmon are essential to our culture and our way of life. We will not stand idly by while our river and our fish are put at risk."

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