Tribes warn of ESA violations over water allocation
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
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
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
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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