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Herald and News: Klamath Falls, Oregon


Winter not wet enough yet

Hanks Marsh lies partially flooded along the east shore of Upper Klamath Lake Thursday afternoon. Despite recent storms, the lake remains below the target elevation set for protection of endangered suckers.

Published Feb. 27, 2004


It may seem like a relatively soggy winter, but there's still not enough water to meet new federal guidelines for protecting threatened and endangered fish in the Klamath Basin.

Representatives of government agencies, Indian tribes and irrigators have been holding frequent conference calls in recent weeks to negotiate over how to stretch meager streamflows while waiting for the spring thaw to unleash a healthy mountain snowpack.

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 lake remains about 4 inches below the end-of-February target elevation designed to keep shoreline sucker spawning habitat inundated.

The Bureau of Reclamation, one of three federal agencies involved in balancing water supplies in the Klamath Basin, struck an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service earlier this year to curtail flows in the Klamath River.

"We are just trying to make sure the lake fills," said Dave Sabo, manager of the Klamath Reclamation Project.

A recent spate of stormy weather has boosted inflow to Upper Klamath Lake, but officials don't expect it to reach the designated minimum elevation of 4,141.7 feet above sea level by Sunday.

Missing the required level means the Bureau of Reclamation is technically out of compliance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion for protection of endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers.

But Curt Mullis, manager of the Wildlife Service's Klamath Falls office, said the agency will relax the requirements for the end of February because the recent cold snap that has dropped snow in the region is also delaying the onset of sucker spawning.

Suckers usually start spawning in March.

Mullis said suckers are long-lived fish and highly successful spawners, so they 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.

For the Klamath River, the National Marine Fisheries Service has its own biological opinion to protect coho salmon. The opinion sets flow requirements from Iron Gate Dam in Siskiyou County.

So far this winter there hasn't been enough water to meet those requirements.

Since December, the Bureau has been striking agreements with the Marine Fisheries Service to decrease the amount of water sent downstream.

Sabo said Iron Gate flows for the first half of February were about 1,300 cubic feet per second, which are about 500 cfs below the biological opinion's requirement.

A blast of wet weather raised the flow this 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. Sabo said the two agencies planned to continue discussions today on how to manage the river.

Jim Lecky, assistant regional administrator for the Fisheries Service, said the Bureau of Reclamation is caught in a quirk within the matrix for managing flows under various water scenarios.

He said the biological opinion calls for higher flows in a "below-average" water year than in an "average" year. That's because the minimums river flow calculations were based on what happened in the river during the 1990s.

During that decade there was only one below-average year, and it so happened that January and February were relatively wet months that year. As a result, early-spring flow requirements are relatively high.

"It's probably higher than it really needs to be," Lecky said.

The situation has left critics of the biological opinions calling for changes, said Dan Keppen executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

"It is a clear sign that these biological opinions need to be reworked to provide more flexibility for all of us," Keppen said. "Even without agriculture, sometimes there is not enough water to meet both needs," Keppen said.

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

Despite the juggling of water supplies now, Sabo said there is going to be enough water for agricultural deliveries come irrigation season, which starts in April.

Long-term changes in the biological opinions for fish would take time, he said, because the Bureau must consult with the two fishery agencies.

Carl "Bud" Ullman, attorney for the Klamath Tribes, said the managers of the lake and river need to be mindful that failure to meet the lake levels increases the risk for suckers. Ullman has represented the Tribes in the conference calls.

"The situation illustrates the problems that we face even in an average water year with all of the commitments that have been made for water," he said.

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