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New joint opinion may help irrigators
Coordinated opinion for fish could mean more water certainty
By JOEL ASCHBRENNER, Herald and News 5/17/12
For years, water in the Klamath Basin has been managed by a paradox of sorts.
Two federal agencies maintained opposing and sometimes conflicting opinions about water requirements.
One of the so-called biological opinions says water must be held in Upper Klamath Lake to benefit endangered sucker. But another says water must be sent downriver for endangered salmon. Irrigators get whatever water remains.
That has been the status quo.
Now the agencies — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service — are developing a joint biological opinion that works for both sucker and salmon. They aim to issue the joint opinion by next spring, just in time for the 2013 irrigation season.
The process of developing a biological opinion isn’t public, so until then, it won’t be known exactly what the new joint opinion will mean for species, fishermen and irrigators.
It certainly won’t mean unlimited water for farmers, but irrigation officials say it could bring more certainty. Wildlife officials say it could result in more real-time management of water. And those with the Klamath Tribes say it could result in better management of Upper Klamath Lake.
Greg Addington , executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said irrigators have always wanted a coordinated biological opinion that offers more certainty.
“They want more predictability,” he said. “ They want to know early in the season what they ’ll have to work with.”
Biological opinions are a source of frustration for irrigators because they guarantee water for fish, but not farmers, said Hollie Cannon, executive director of the Klamath Water and Power Agency. He said the amount of water sent downriver, under the current biological opinion for salmon, is more than would have ever flowed downriver naturally.
“Why is it that the Klamath Project farmer pays the entire bill for the whole thing?” he said. “If the entire watershed is sick, why is it only the Klamath Project farmer who is being penalized?”
Laurie Sada, field supervisor for the Klamath Falls U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said a joint biological opinion could allow the agencies to adjust downriver flows more frequently based on changes in weather, to help retain irrigation water when possible.
But it’s not all about irrigators.
A joint biological opinion also would allow for the better management of endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker in the lake and coho salmon in the river.
“We recognize the species have different needs,” Sada said. “... And having two separate biological opinions has not worked well because by trying to meet the needs of one species you can inadvertently affect the other.”


That’s exactly what happened in 2010, said Larry Dunsmoor, senior aquatics biologist for the Klamath Tribes. A relatively dry winter that year coupled with a court order that mandated specific downriver flows for coho prevented Upper Klamath Lake from filling, he said. Sucker in the lake and farmers who rely on it for water suffered.
“2010 is a classic example of the problems that are caused by uncoordinated opinions,” Dunsmoor said. “ The conditions weren’t ideal for anyone: suckers, coho, refuges or the project. ... It’s an example of how water management decisions can set the stage for real problems.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a new biological opinion for coho in 2010. It replaced the court ordered downstream flows and allowed more water to be retained in the lake during the winter, said Irma Lagomarsino, Northern California office supervisor with the National Marine Fisheries Service southwest region.
Ideally, a new joint biological opinion would meet requirements for coho and sucker and provide as much water as possible for agriculture, Lagomarsino said.
“I do think that if it is possible to find (water) savings, we’re in the best possible position to find them,” she said.
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Joint opinion first for Klamath Basin
Joint biological opinions are rare.
Only a few have been issued on the West Coast and none in the Klamath Basin, where the endangered fish share a resource (water) but no common habitat, said Laurie Sada, field supervisor for the Klamath Falls office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Developing a joint biological opinion for salmon and sucker has required unprecedented coordination among the Marine Fisheries Service, a Department of Commerce agency that manages oceanic species; the Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior Department agency that manages species on the continent; and the Bureau of Reclamation, Sada said.
“If we are to succeed ... if we are to do the best job possible to share these resources, we must have a coordinated opinion,” she said. “This is a big step forward.”
Reclamation start of coordinated opinion
To deliver water to the Klamath Reclamation Project, the Bureau of Reclamation must consult federal agencies that manage affected endangered species.
The agencies issue biological opinions on whether the plan will jeopardize the species.
In the Klamath Basin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues a biological opinion for endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker in Upper Klamath Lake and the National Marine Fisheries Service issues one for endangered coho salmon in the Klamath River.
A decade ago, the three agencies hardly coordinated, officials said. Today, as the Bureau develops a new plan for operating the project, the three agencies are working closely together to ensure the plan satisfies the needs of fish and provides as much water as possible for irrigators, said Kevin Moore, spokesman with the Reclamation’s Klamath Basin area office.
Reclamation is expected to develop the plan in time for the agencies to issue a joint biological opinion before the start of the 2013 irrigation season, he said.


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