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Klamath Tribes file notice to sue government


GP Upper Klamath Lake 3.jpgKLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — More legal battles are brewing in the Klamath Basin as tribes and irrigators jockey for water amid ongoing drought.

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.

Earlier this year, the agency proposed reducing streamflows in the Klamath River by up to 40% until April in order to refill Upper Klamath Lake.

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 Service.

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 habitat.

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 suckers.

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 Project entirely.

The Klamath Project also delivers water to the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges — key stops for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.

“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 KWUA.

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 back from.”



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