FALLS, Ore. — More legal battles are brewing in the Klamath
Basin as tribes and irrigators jockey for water amid ongoing
The Klamath Tribes filed a 60-day
notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Reclamation on Jan.
30, arguing the agency is failing to meet minimum water
requirements in Upper Klamath Lake for C’waam and Koptu —
two species of critically endangered sucker fish.
At the same time, the Yurok Tribe in
northern California is also challenging Reclamation’s latest
water proposal to protect salmon in the lower Klamath River.
The result could be that little to no
Project water is available for irrigators this summer,
leaving thousands of acres of productive farmland dry.
For water managers, it is a difficult
balancing act made all the more painful by four consecutive
years of drought in the region.
Without enough water to satisfy all
demands, Reclamation — which operates the Klamath Project —
has taken a more flexible approach, adapting its strategy
based on changing hydrological conditions to minimize
impacts on endangered fish.
On Feb. 14, Reclamation announced it
will begin cutting minimum flows below Iron Gate Dam by 11%,
or 105 cubic feet per second, in coordination with the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries
This will increase the likelihood that
Upper Klamath Lake reaches 4,142 feet of water elevation by
April 1, officials outlined. The elevation is needed for
C’waam and Koptu to access shoreline spawning and rearing
Further adjustments could be made
based on continued monitoring of salmon redds, or egg nests,
in the Klamath River. If the initial 11% flow reduction does
not dewater more than three redds out of 30 identified as
being at risk, then Reclamation could reduce flows by
another 5% to hold more water back in Upper Klamath Lake for
Reclamation will continue to meet with
the USFWS, NOAA Fisheries, tribes and water users weekly to
consider potential changes in management.
Clayton Dumont, chairman of the
Klamath Tribes, said Reclamation has failed to meet minimum
water levels for suckers during each of the last three
years, and this year will make it four in a row unless the
agency changes course. Populations of Koptu have fallen
below 3,500 surviving fish, and there has been no successful
recruitment of juveniles since 1993.
“It’s a horrible situation,” Dumont
said. “We’re comparing the relative risks to salmon, which
are threatened, and Koptu, which are all but extinct.”
The Klamath Water Users Association,
which represents Klamath Project irrigators, has similarly
pushed to refill Upper Klamath Lake as the best strategy for
farms and fish.
Last year, farmers and ranchers idled
more than 30,000 acres after receiving only a fraction of
the water they need. In 2021, water was shut off to the
The Klamath Project also delivers
water to the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife
refuges — key stops for migratory birds along the Pacific
“Drought conditions continue to
worsen, and the likelihood for significant and direct
conflict between the river and the lake in terms of
(Endangered Species Act) requirements grows more so by the
day,” said Moss Driscoll, director of water policy for the
At the other end of the 263-mile
basin, the Yurok Tribe filed its own notice of intent to sue
Reclamation on Dec. 23 over cutting river flows for salmon.
The tribe has also motioned to file a
supplemental complaint to its 2019 lawsuit against
Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service. If
granted, the supplemental complaint seeks an injunction that
would prohibit all irrigation deliveries until all ESA-mandated
requirements for fish are met first.
“We’re already a party to that
litigation,” Driscoll said. “We would appear, and we would
file to oppose that motion for a temporary injunction.”
In a previous statement, Matt Mais, a
spokesman for the Yurok Tribe, said reducing streamflow
would represent a “major step backwards” in their fight to
restore the Klamath River.
While the Klamath Tribes want to see
salmon populations recover downriver, Reclamation should be
doing everything it can to protect suckers in Upper Klamath
Lake, Dumont said.
Losing the suckers would be hard for
the tribes to fathom, he said.
“They’re such a cultural, ecological,
spiritual and physical staple. They’ve been a symbol for so
long of our struggle to revitalize ourselves,” Dumont said.
“That would just be a blow that I don’t know how we’d come
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