KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A federal judge
in San Francisco indicated he will not limit water
deliveries to the Klamath Project after the Bureau of
Reclamation argued it is on track to meet its obligations
for endangered species.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed in
2019 by the Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of
Fishermen's Associations and Institute for Fisheries
Resources challenging Reclamation's Klamath Project
The Klamath Project provides water for
about 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Southern Oregon
and Northern California.
At the same time, Reclamation must
satisfy minimum water demands for threatened coho salmon in
the lower Klamath River, and two species of endangered
sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, known as C'waam and Koptu.
Earlier this year, the agency adopted
a temporary measure reducing streamflows in the Klamath
River below Iron Gate Dam to hold more water back in Upper
Reclamation had previously failed to
meet minimum lake levels by April 1 for three consecutive
years amid extreme drought.
The Yurok Tribe claimed that decision
put salmon at risk, potentially drying out egg nests and
habitat. The tribe filed
a motion for a preliminary injunction on
March 22 to withhold irrigation water until Reclamation
could prove it has met all requirements under the Endangered
U.S. District Judge William Orrick
heard arguments on May 10. He did not issue an injunction,
but ordered Reclamation to file its annual Klamath Project
operations plan with the court. Sides would then have two
weeks to enter any new objections.
Reclamation's attorney, Robert
Williams, said he anticipated the plan would be ready in the
coming days or weeks.
Williams said the agency expects to
meet its ESA requirements through the end of the water year
on Sept. 30.
Reclamation already reached the
minimum water elevation of 4,142 feet in Upper Klamath Lake
by April 1, allowing C'waam and Koptu to reach shoreline
spawning and rearing habitat.
Projections show the agency is also
likely to meet its end-of-season minimum elevation of 4,138
feet, and could finish at 4,139.2 feet — more than a foot
higher than required.
In addition, Williams said Reclamation
was able to provide a full "flushing flow" of water down the
Klamath River intended to wash away fish-killing parasites,
and expects to meet minimum river flows through the end of
the water year.
"The plaintiffs are asking the court
for a preliminary injunction, even though there's no ongoing
violations of the ESA," Williams said.
Patti Goldman, an attorney for the
plaintiffs, argued that an injunction was needed to prevent
Reclamation from skirting its ESA responsibilities. She said
the agency allocated 57,000 acre-feet of "bonus water" for
irrigators in 2022, despite knowing it would not be able to
fulfill the needs of fish.
"Had Reclamation not done that, there
would not have been a shortfall in Upper Klamath Lake,"
Jay Weiner, an attorney representing
the Klamath Tribes, said they had no position on the
injunction but criticized Reclamation for playing "fast and
loose" with its irrigation allocation formula under the
Klamath Project interim operations plan.
The Klamath Water Users Association
and Klamath Irrigation District are also intervenors in the
case, and pushed back against imposing any limits on water
to the Klamath Project.
Moss Driscoll, water policy director
for the KWUA, said this year's hydrology in the basin is
much improved, with up to 200% of normal mountain snowpack.
Reclamation allocated 215,000
acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake for the 2023
irrigation season on April 13. Had the agency followed the
interim operations plan, Driscoll said officials would have
allocated 285,000 acre-feet of water for the project — still
short of full demand.
Jeff Boyd, a farmer in Tulelake,
Calif., and vice president of the KWUA board of directors,
said the litigation comes at a time when there is abundant
water in the basin.
"It's inconceivable that we are in
court when we should be irrigating and producing food," Boyd