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Judge won't halt water for Klamath Project irrigators

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. A federal judge in San Francisco indicated he will not limit water deliveries to the Klamath Project after the Bureau of Reclamation argued it is on track to meet its obligations for endangered species. 

The case stems from a lawsuit filed in 2019 by the Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources challenging Reclamation's Klamath Project operations plan. 

The Klamath Project provides water for about 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

At the same time, Reclamation must satisfy minimum water demands for threatened coho salmon in the lower Klamath River, and two species of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, known as C'waam and Koptu. 

Earlier this year, the agency adopted a temporary measure reducing streamflows in the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam to hold more water back in Upper Klamath Lake. 

Reclamation had previously failed to meet minimum lake levels by April 1 for three consecutive years amid extreme drought. 

The Yurok Tribe claimed that decision put salmon at risk, potentially drying out egg nests and habitat. The tribe filed a motion for a preliminary injunction on March 22 to withhold irrigation water until Reclamation could prove it has met all requirements under the Endangered Species Act. 

U.S. District Judge William Orrick heard arguments on May 10. He did not issue an injunction, but ordered Reclamation to file its annual Klamath Project operations plan with the court. Sides would then have two weeks to enter any new objections.

Reclamation's attorney, Robert Williams, said he anticipated the plan would be ready in the coming days or weeks. 

Williams said the agency expects to meet its ESA requirements through the end of the water year on Sept. 30.

Reclamation already reached the minimum water elevation of 4,142 feet in Upper Klamath Lake by April 1, allowing C'waam and Koptu to reach shoreline spawning and rearing habitat. 

Projections show the agency is also likely to meet its end-of-season minimum elevation of 4,138 feet, and could finish at 4,139.2 feet more than a foot higher than required. 

In addition, Williams said Reclamation was able to provide a full "flushing flow" of water down the Klamath River intended to wash away fish-killing parasites, and expects to meet minimum river flows through the end of the water year. 

"The plaintiffs are asking the court for a preliminary injunction, even though there's no ongoing violations of the ESA," Williams said.

Patti Goldman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that an injunction was needed to prevent Reclamation from skirting its ESA responsibilities. She said the agency allocated 57,000 acre-feet of "bonus water" for irrigators in 2022, despite knowing it would not be able to fulfill the needs of fish. 

"Had Reclamation not done that, there would not have been a shortfall in Upper Klamath Lake," Goldman said. 

Jay Weiner, an attorney representing the Klamath Tribes, said they had no position on the injunction but criticized Reclamation for playing "fast and loose" with its irrigation allocation formula under the Klamath Project interim operations plan. 

The Klamath Water Users Association and Klamath Irrigation District are also intervenors in the case, and pushed back against imposing any limits on water to the Klamath Project. 

Moss Driscoll, water policy director for the KWUA, said this year's hydrology in the basin is much improved, with up to 200% of normal mountain snowpack. 

Reclamation allocated 215,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake for the 2023 irrigation season on April 13. Had the agency followed the interim operations plan, Driscoll said officials would have allocated 285,000 acre-feet of water for the project still short of full demand. 

Jeff Boyd, a farmer in Tulelake, Calif., and vice president of the KWUA board of directors, said the litigation comes at a time when there is abundant water in the basin.

"It's inconceivable that we are in court when we should be irrigating and producing food," Boyd said. 

 

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