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Klamath low flow misses lake target

By DYLAN DARLING Freelance Writer


Capital Press Ag Weekly 3/8/04

Hanks Marsh lies partially flooded along the east shore of Upper Klamath Lake last week. Despite recent storms, the lake missed the end-of-month target elevation set for protection of endangered suckers by about 2 inches Feb. 29. - Photo courtesy Gary Thain

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Federal water managers couldn’t deliver Feb. 29.

Upper Klamath Lake came up about 2 inches short of making end-of-the-month elevations spelled out in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion designed to protect two species of lake-dwelling sucker fish.

Even though irrigation canals are shut down for the winter, federal managers can’t find enough water to meet minimum flow requirements to protect threatened coho salmon in the lower Klamath River and minimum lake level requirements for Upper Klamath Lake.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, one of three federal agencies involved in balancing Klamath Basin water supplies, was in talks much of last week with USFWS, NOAA Fisheries and the Klamath Tribes.

Adequate streamflows, apparently reduced by a couple of dry years, just haven’t materialized despite periodic winter storms sweeping across the upper basin. Upper Klamath Lake is the primary storage for the BuRec Klamath Project, and source of stored water NOAA Fisheries requires for another biological opinion protecting coho salmon in the main Klamath River. Both the suckers and coho are under Endangered Species Act protection.

A recent spate of stormy weather boosted inflow, but it wasn’t enough to push the lake level to reach the designated minimum elevation of 4,141.7 feet above sea level.

Curt Mullis, manager of USFWS Klamath Falls office, said the agency relaxed the requirements for the end of February because the recent cold snap that dropped snow in the region is also delaying the onset of sucker spawning.

Suckers usually start spawning in March. Mullis said the long-lived sucker fish shouldn’t be hampered by a shortened spawning season.

“If we miss a little bit one year, it is not as critical as with other fish,” Mullis said.

Low flows downstream mean mandated discharge at Iron Gate Dam, five miles east of I-5 in far Northern California, are below minimum discharge requirements.

Since December, BuRec has been striking agreements with the NOAA to decrease the amount of water sent downstream.

BuRec Area Manager Dave Sabo said Iron Gate flows for the first half of February were about 1,300 cubic feet per second, about 500 cfs below the biological opinion’s requirement.

A blast of wet weather raised the flow last week to about 2,200 cfs, but that is expected to fall back to about 1,800 cfs soon, Sabo said.

Under the biological opinion, the river is required to be at 2,100 cfs at the start of March.

NOAA’s Jim Lecky said part of the problem is how the biological opinions are written, dividing water years by annual expected flows. Current operations are for a “below average” year, which specify more water downstream than in average or above average years.

February flows, Lecky said, are “probably higher” than needed for the coho.

Sabo said last month BuRec intends to renegotiate parts of both biological opinions. NOAA is under court order to revise the mainstem Klamath document. But the court order didn’t cover discharge or water year designations.

“It is a clear sign that these biological opinions need to be reworked to provide more flexibility for all of us,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association. “Even without agriculture, sometimes there is not enough water to meet both needs.”

Requirements for protecting suckers and salmon led to a nearly complete shutdown of the Klamath Reclamation Project in 2001.

Bud Ullman, attorney for the Klamath Tribes, said this winter’s flow problems illustrate Klamath Basin troubles “even in an average water year” because of multiple commitments for the same water resource.





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