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Chinook salmon petition may lead to less water for producers 


by Sara Hottman, Herald and News 3/3/11


     The National Marine Fisheries Service officials are still assessing a petition to decide if spring-run Chinook salmon should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.


   If the agency decides they shouldn’t, the petition will be dismissed.


   If it decides they should, the agency launches a year-long review that could result in another biological opinion controlling Klamath River flows below the Iron Gate Dam, just south of the Oregon-California border.


   “There are a lot of unknowns,” said Greg Addington, director of the Klamath Water Users Association. “But in all likelihood, it’s not good.


   “What these (petitioners) are doing causes more issues related to flows in the Klamath River. It could require more water sent down the Klamath River. We don’t know that for sure, but that’s what we’re concerned about.”


   More water down the Klamath River means more water drawn from Upper Klamath Lake, the 873,000-acre-foot reservoir controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.


   Once a fish is protected under the ESA, it cannot be hunted and its habitat is protected by a federal agency.


   Spring-run Chinook salmon migrate to the California side of the Klamath River from the Pacific Ocean during April and June each year. ESA protection would affect tribes, fishermen, hatcheries and enterprise in California, as well as irrigators on the Klamath Reclamation Project and the Bureau of Reclamation.


   Jason Phillips, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said there are too many unknowns for him to speculate on how ESA protection may affect Project irrigators.    


   Jim Milbury, spokesman for National Marine Fisheries Service, said officials are still reviewing the petition. They have until the end of April, 90 days from the filing date, to make a determination.     


   The petition


   Project farmers are already affected by two other biological opinions, one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect sucker in the lake and one from National Marine Fisheries Service to protect coho salmon in the Klamath River.  


   In January, four environmental groups — Oregon Wild, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, and the Larch Company — filed the petition.


   They argue in the petition that dams, water withdraws, logging, hatcheries, disease and climate change have left Chinook salmon at “immediate risk of extinction.”


   “Several human-caused and naturally occurring threats have led to the precarious status of spring run Chinook in the Klamath Basin, necessitating their protection under the Endangered Species Act,” the petition reads.


   Because of dams and other human activity, the petition says, populations that once topped 100,000 fish are now dwindling to between 300 and 3,000 wild-spawning, not hatchery, spring Chinook each year.


   “The groups making the petition are an example of outside interests poking around the lives of people in the Basin,” Addington said.


   Calls for comment to Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Wild were not returned by deadline.  


Side Bar


   Farmers and the ESA


   Klamath Reclamation Project irrigators have already felt the impact of protected fish in the Klamath River.


   Coho salmon in the Klamath River have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2005, when they were listed as threatened. Their habitat was designated as critical in 1999.


   Since then, a biological opinion enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service has protected their habitat, most recently by requiring certain flow patterns created by releasing water from Upper Klamath Lake — also a source of irrigation water for farmers.


   In dry years, water goes to flow patterns first, farmers second.


   “The biggest impact (of the listing) is what we consider unsustainably high flows in the Klamath River,” said Greg Addington, director of the Klamath Water Users Association. 


   Some Project farmers say the science in the biological opinion is faulty, and others say the flows the agency enforces don’t mimic natural flows and so do little to improve fish populations.


   The process to list a fish under the ESA takes at least 27 months, said Jim Milbury, spokesman with the National Marine Fisheries Service.


   Agency officials have 90 days to review the petition to assess if protective action is warranted.


   If the agency accepts the petition, it conducts a yearlong review assessing if a listing is warranted.


   If protection is warranted, the petition goes to public comment for a year, and then the agency determines whether to list the species.


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