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Lake level low, river flows cut

Published Feb. 3, 2004


Because Upper Klamath Lake is a foot lower than they want it to be, federal water managers have cut the amount of water flowing out of it.

Despite a wet winter, there's fear that water for fish and farmers will be short again this summer.

"It's got us scared," said Dave Sabo, manager of the Klamath Reclamation Project.

As a result, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation worked out a deal with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to cut flows in the Klamath River for the first half of February in hopes of filling the lake by summer.

Upper Klamath Lake is the main water source for the project and the river. As of Sunday, the lake was at 4,140.39 feet above sea level, about a foot lower than the operating plan envisions. At full pool, the lake's elevation is about three feet higher.

In an e-mail exchange, Sabo asked an official of the fisheries service if the Bureau could follow river flow guidelines set for 10 years from now instead of those in the operations plan.

"Should we be unable to fill (Upper Klamath Lake), the prospects for meeting summer 2004 (Endangered Species Act) requirements on the lake and in the river, while meeting agricultural deliveries, become tenuous at best," he wrote.

In an e-mail response, Regional Director Irma Largomarsino of the fisheries service's Arcata, Calif., office, said the cut in flows is unlikely to result in increased risk to coho salmon, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

"In general, February is a month in which there is minimal utilization of mainstem Klamath River habitat by coho salmon," she wrote.

Sabo said he thinks the Fisheries Service wants the Bureau to put more water down the river in the next couple of years in comparison to several years from now because more water now could help revive the system.

"It's like giving your car high-octane gas at first to make it run better, and then you can give it the cheap stuff," he said.

But when inflow into Upper Klamath Lake is down and the lake level is low, he said, the Bureau will ask to use the lower flow levels now. Because of low lake levels in November, the Bureau asked for lower flows for December.

The Fisheries Service agreed, allowing the Bureau to have flows around 1,300 cubic feet a second from Iron Gate Dam in December and then agreeing to them again in January.

The agreement between Sabo and Largomarsino extends that through Feb. 15.

Monday's flow was at 1,310 cfs, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. According to the Bureau's 2003 project operations plan, February's flow should be at 1,806 cfs.

Cecil Lesley, Bureau chief of land and operations for the Klamath Falls office, said the lake has been rising at a rate of 0.02 inch to 0.03 inch per day.

"If we hadn't had an agreement for that period, the lake would have stayed flat or decreased," he said.

Although the snowpack is at 127 percent of average, Lesley said, the precipitation this water year is 97 of average because of a dry November.

Glen Spain, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen Associations, said a cut in flows is better now than later.

"At this point, it is not dangerous," he said. "I can understand the constraints they are under. They are trying to get the lake as full as possible as soon as possible."

He said his group is worried about the flows in late February and early March. That is when he said young salmon emerge from their eggs in the spawning grounds and start their swim for the sea.

If the lake stays low, Sabo said, the Bureau is going to ask the Fisheries Service if the flows could be cut to 1,725 cfs from the 2,190 cfs that is called for in the operations plan for the first half of March.

Spain said the tweaking of flows is a dangerous game to start playing, and the fish are going to need more water.

"We are all going to be biting our nails for the next couple of years," Spain said.

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