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Klamath Project back in the crosshairs

 October 21, 2005

Once again it appears it's going to be up to the Klamath Reclamation Project to try to solve all of the Klamath River's water problems. That appears to be the essence of a federal appeal judge's ruling Tuesday, and it's a major problem for the Klamath Basin's irrigators.

Putting so much of the responsibility on the Klamath Project is hardly fair, or logical. While the Project is an intense user of water, it's not the only user. Half a million acres of the Upper Klamath Basin watershed are irrigated, but only a little more than a third of that is in the Project.

The issue was sent back to U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, for further action. The lower court will have to figure out where to get more water to send downriver to benefit endangered salmon species on the lower Klamath River.

The plan agreed to by the federal agencies involved would have allowed the Bureau of Reclamation to release more water in wet years, less water in dry ones.

The Court of Appeals decided that giving the federal government eight years over which to ensure that the full amount of water was delivered to the lower river wasn't scientifically valid since that could be beyond the life span of the fish.

“If there is insufficient water to sustain the coho during this period, they will not complete their life cycle with the consequence that there will be no coho at the the end of the eight years,” wrote Judge Dorothy W. Nelson in the court's opinion.

While it'll be up to the District Court to decide where to get the water, there isn't much doubt that the Klamath Project is in the crosshairs again. It's the handy spigot for the feds to open wider when they get in trouble on water allocations, even though it can include a heavy cost to Klamath Basin families and the local economy, and even though the proportion of water at the Klamath River's mouth that originates in the upper Basin is small.

The latest decision sends everyone back to the drawing board.

Perhaps there's room for movement, say, in the eight-year time span that was involved. Would one based on fewer years pass legal muster, even though it decreases the Klamath Project's operating flexibility? The fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries - an agency that hasn't been overly friendly to Klamath Basin irrigators - agreed to the eight-year time span was a sign that it could accept the concept. Is there more water available from the Trinity River, which is the Klamath's biggest tributary? Much of its water is diverted into California's Central Valley.

The ruling was bad for the Klamath Basin. For too long, the Basin has borne too much of the burden for maintaining legally mandated streamflows.

The decision points out, once again, the necessity of a negotiated settlement of the Basin's water struggle, on a Basinwide basis, from mountain to the sea.

As a result of the decision, the federal agencies apparently now will have to redraw the key document, the biological opinion, on the coho. That will touch off a round of lobbying and infighting as the interested parties try to sway the bureaucracy. That, in turn, will be followed, almost without doubt, by another round in the courts. This is a cycle that needs to end.




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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