SACRAMENTO — In a rebuke to the Bush
administration on a key environmental
battleground, a U.S. appellate court threw out
the last vestiges of a federal plan for the
Klamath River out of fears it diverted so much
water to farms that endangered coho salmon
could teeter toward extinction.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court
of Appeals said the president's water plan
failed to provide adequate water flows in the
river until the final two years of the 10-year
If that happened, wrote Judge Dorothy
W. Nelson, "all the water in the world" would
fail to protect the fish, "for there will be
none to protect."
The court order effectively means the federal
agency that oversees water distribution in the
West, the Bureau of Reclamation, must come up
with a new plan to better divvy up river flows
between farmers and the endangered fish.
Environmentalists, Indian tribes and
commercial fishermen — who have claimed $100
million in losses because of the Klamath's
dwindling coho population — expressed delight
over the ruling, which comes after a
three-year legal fight.
"This will give us a better water plan, one
that doesn't defer for eight years the relief
that is needed immediately," said Glen Spain
of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's
But farmers in the Klamath Basin, a fertile
agricultural region straddling the border of
Oregon and California, expressed concern that
the ruling could spawn anew the sort of
contentiousness that prompted protests and
civil disobedience in the region in 2001.
"This just starts the worrying process all
over again," said Donnie Boyd, a John Deere
tractor dealer in the basin.
"Everyone's livelihood is hanging on a very
The 9th Circuit ruling sends the case back to
a district judge with orders to give more
water to the fish and less to the farmers.
The soonest any new water plan could take
effect is for next year's irrigation season.
But that process could be delayed further if
federal officials appeal.
"I don't know where we're going to go from
here," said Jeffrey McCracken, a Bureau of
Reclamation spokesman. "We're having one of
our legal guys take a look and let us know
what our next step is."
The Klamath was once the nation's
third-mightiest salmon-producing river, with
an annual run of coho approaching 125,000 in
By the mid-1990s, when the coho were declared
endangered, fewer than 6,000 of the prized
salmon were returning each year.
Citing the three-year lifecycle of the salmon,
Nelson wrote in her 24-page opinion that
urgency is needed.
"It is not enough to provide water for the
coho to survive in five years if in the
meantime the population has been weakened or
destroyed by inadequate water flows," she
The roots of the dispute stretch back to 2001,
when a drought prompted federal regulators for
a time to cut off irrigation water to Klamath
Basin farmers, making the basin a flashpoint
for debate over the Endangered Species Act.
A few residents took matters into their own
hands, repeatedly defying federal authorities
by opening irrigation canal gates to let water
pour into fields.
By 2002 the Bush administration had a new plan
in place that ensured irrigation water for
agriculture, but prompted protests from
environmentalists worried about the fish.