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Reclamation announces more water for Klamath Project, refuges

by Alex Schwartz, Herald and News 9/6/2020

The Bureau of Reclamation announced an increase in water deliveries for the Klamath Project on Friday, citing “modest improvements in hydrology during the late summer,” according to a news release. But tribes throughout the basin said the additional allocations ignored the federal government’s treaty obligations to keep Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River stable for fishing and ceremonies.

Additional flows will provide 5,400 additional acre-feet of water to Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges and 10,000 to 15,000 additional acre-feet to project farms. It also increases the water allocation to the Klamath Project by 8,000 acre-feet. Tribes said Reclamation could have better allocated the water so as not to disregard treaty obligations while still providing more for farmers and refuges.

The Yurok Tribe expressed frustration with the announcement, as Reclamation didn’t send the 7,000 acre-feet of water it had originally promised for their Boat Dance Ceremony downstream on August 30. The ceremony, in which tribal members dance in redwood canoes floating along the Klamath River, requires enough water in the river to provide proper currents and depth for the canoes.

That water was supposed to come from Upper Klamath Lake, according to the Klamath Project’s 2020 Annual Operations Plan. A lawsuit brought by the tribe to re-secure the flows pointed to an August email from Reclamation that said the water couldn’t be delivered from Upper Klamath Lake due to “carryover storage, water for the 2021 water year and satisfying other requirements.”

“The Yurok Tribe was told last week that our ceremonial needs for increased river flows could not be met due to concerns about the drought,” Yurok tribal chairman Joseph L. James said in a statement. “Obviously, that was not true.”

In the absence of the promised flow from Reclamation, PacifiCorp stepped in and released the water directly from the Klamath reservoirs, and the ceremony was still able to happen. But that water will still need to be replaced by flows from further upstream.

In a news release, the Klamath Tribes said they were “deeply disturbed” by Reclamation’s decision to release more water from Upper Klamath Lake, especially during a heat wave when lower lake levels could contribute to toxic algae blooms linked to the decline in endangered C’waam and Koptu (sucker) populations.

“This is a complete abdication of Reclamation’s responsibility for protecting endangered C’waam and Koptu,” the release said.

In a separate statement to the Herald & News, Reclamation maintained that hydrological conditions have improved enough so that additional water deliveries can be removed from Upper Klamath Lake without it dropping below the minimum elevation outlined in the most recent biological opinion.

“I am pleased that Reclamation, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, can make these operational adjustments to close out the agricultural activities as planned and bring additional relief to the wildlife refuges,” said Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.

Tule Lake Refuge has been dealing with one of its worst botulism outbreaks in history since July, where tens of thousands of birds have been infected with paralyzing bacteria related to low water levels and warm temperatures. After roughly half a year without significantly delivering water to refuges, Reclamation, in cooperation with the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, began small water deliveries to Lower Klamath Refuge in mid-July and Tule Lake Refuge in mid-August. The project has already delivered 4,000 acre-feet of water to the refuge this summer to help curb the outbreak.

“I commend the Bureau of Reclamation for working to augment water deliveries to help our waterfowl and wildlife population as the water year comes to a close,” said Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.).

To close out the growing season, Reclamation also set up a temporary irrigation exchange of 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet of water to project farms. The water will come from Upper Klamath Lake, which will be replenished in the fall by releases from Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoir through the Lost River. Reclamation will also increase the allocation of the project by up to 8,000 acre-feet from Upper Klamath Lake, if needed.

Klamath Water Users Association praised the announcement, especially in light of this year’s historically low project allocation that has stretched both farmers and refuges thin.

“There should be no mistake: The amount of water for Project irrigation and refuges this year is unacceptably low. There has already been significant damage to farm communities and wildlife,” said KWUA executive director Paul Simmons. “But today’s management decision is welcome news.”



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