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Klamath Tribes warn of ESA violations over water allocation

 April 25, 2022

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. The Klamath Tribes are considering whether to sue the federal government over protections for two species of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake. 

Tribal Chairman Don Gentry sent a letter April 14 to David Palumbo, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act after allotting limited water from the lake for irrigators in the Klamath Project.

The Klamath Project provides irrigation water for 170,000 acres of farmland straddling Southern Oregon and Northern California. Reclamation estimates it will release about 50,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake into the Project's A Canal, based on current hydrologic conditions. 

That would be the second-lowest allocation in project history and 15% of full demand as the basin confronts a third consecutive year of intense drought.

Under the ESA, Reclamation must operate the Klamath Project without harming listed fish including Lost River and shortnose suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, known by the Klamath Tribes as C'waam and Koptu. 

Both species of suckers were listed as endangered in 1988. Populations that once numbered in the tens of millions have since dropped to fewer than 50,000 surviving individuals in the Upper Klamath River drainage. 

As part of an environmental assessment negotiated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Reclamation must maintain a minimum surface elevation of 4,142 feet in Upper Klamath Lake during April and May for suckers to access shoreline spawning habitat.

However, Reclamation acknowledged there is not enough water in the system to meet that target regardless of project supply. The agency laid out its 2022 operations plan on April 11, calling for a minimum surface elevation of 4,138.5 feet in Upper Klamath Lake and minimal Project allocation. 

Gentry states the 2022 plan "directly contravenes Reclamation's own water allocation formula, the honest application of which would straightforwardly set project supply ... at zero."

"It gives me no pleasure to send this letter, or for the Tribes to be forced to sue the United States for the third time in five years," he wrote. 

C'waam and Koptu fisheries have sustained the Klamath people for millennia. The species are also central to the tribes' cultural and spiritual practices, yet they now face extinction due to habitat loss and water quality issues, Gentry added.

Basin farmers, meanwhile, argue they are being deprived of water for crops and livestock without benefitting fish.

A year ago, the Klamath Project received no water from Upper Klamath Lake. As canals went dry, fields turned to dust and more than 300 domestic wells failed in Klamath County.

According to the Klamath Water Users Association, a group that represents 1,200 farms and ranches in the Klamath Project, this year's expected allocation of 50,000 acre-feet equals no more than 5% of all the water that will be used this season from Upper Klamath Lake.

About 40% of the water will be sent down the Klamath River for ESA-listed salmon; 28% will be held in Upper Klamath Lake for C'waam and Koptu and 27% will be lost to evaporation. 

KWUA President Ben DuVal called the regulators' performance "unacceptable" and "embarrassing" in a recent statement. 

"On a single acre, we can produce over 50,000 pounds of potatoes or 6,000 pounds of wheat," said DuVal, who farms near Tulelake, Calif. "This year, most of that land will not produce any food because the government is denying water for irrigation. We'll just be trying to keep the weeds and dust under control." 

Reclamation will provide $20 million in immediate drought assistance to farmers, and $5 million in technical assistance for tribal-led water conservation projects. The Biden administration's infrastructure bill also set aside $162 million for the basin through 2026.

Gentry said C'waam and Koptu have seen no major recruitment into the breeding population since the early 1990s, and the remaining adult fish are nearing the end of their natural lifespan. The tribes are urging Reclamation to rescind its 2022 plan to comply with the ESA and prioritize the needs of fish. 

"The Tribes will do everything in our power to ensure that the precious remnants of these once bountiful populations are not forever erased from the face of the Earth," he wrote. 



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