Upper Klamath Lake forecast looking poor for
fish and farms
Schwartz, Herald and News 2/19/21
a dismal outlook on water year 2021, the Klamath Tribes have
filed a notice of intent, saying they will sue the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation for violating the Endangered Species
Act if Upper Klamath Lake dips below levels outlined in the
2020 biological opinion this spring.
which will allow the Tribes to file suit more quickly if
they decide to pursue litigation, was sent to the principal
deputy commissioner of Reclamation and the acting secretary
of the Interior. It asserts that the Bureau violated the
2020 biological opinion by diverting too much of the lake’s
water to Klamath Project irrigators at the beginning of last
stipulated maintaining lake levels at certain times of the
year to provide adequate habitat for ESA-listed C’waam (Lost
River suckers) and Koptu (shortnose suckers), which are
culturally and spiritually important to the Klamath Tribes
and have been declining in numbers for decades.
went below the lake levels required for spawning season last
year, they’re not allowed to do that this year,” said
Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry. “It’s kind of a hard,
fast requirement to be in compliance with the biological
A news release
from the Tribes said projected inflows to Upper Klamath Lake
are some of the lowest they’ve been in 40 years, based on
periodic briefings from Reclamation hydrologists.
executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association,
said Upper Klamath Lake is refilling at a rate in the third
percentile of its period of record. Just bringing it up to
the required level for sucker spawning will be hard enough,
to say nothing of providing water for irrigation.
“We know that
we’re in a very serious situation,” Gentry said. “It looks
like there’s going to be very little water, if at all, for
snowpack accumulation that seems to be improving as the
winter progresses —as of February 18, the Basin’s snow-water
equivalent was at 80% of
the median for this time of year compared to 70% at the beginning of
the month, according to the Natural Resources Conservation
Service —Simmons said exceptionally dry soils are absorbing
precipitation that would normally melt into Upper Klamath
Lake in the spring.
“You have a
situation where the ground in the upper watershed is just
dry,” Simmons said. “To the extent that you have
precipitation up there, a lot of it is just soaking in. It’s
a dry year on top of a dry year.”
that given current conditions, BOR is expecting an even
lower allocation for the Klamath Project than last year.
Though February is too early to say for sure what that
number will be, Simons said the current projection is
“We would need
a very, very atypical February and March to get out of the
situation we’re in,” he said.
the latest climate forecast from Oregon Department of
Forestry Meteorologist Pete Parsons, March through May is
not expected to deliver those conditions, though things are
certainly looking better compared to last year.
With a moderate
La Nina impacting the equatorial Pacific, Parsons said
colder temperatures are expected to endure slightly longer
than normal this winter, potentially holding snow in the
high elevations for longer than last year.
likely not going to see a rapid snowmelt from the Cascades,”
he said in his February 18 forecast
Parsons said he
expects basins in Southern Oregon to trend at or slightly
below average snowpack levels, with above average mountain
snow during March and April. Even in May, when La Nina
conditions may begin to ease, there’s still a likelihood of
below average temperatures and above average precipitation.
“I didn’t think
this winter was going to look at all like the last two
winters,” Parsons said. “It hasn’t.”
conditions over the next few months aren’t expected to
result in a huge departure from average temperatures and
precipitation, but Simmons said the dry soils combined with
a dry start to this year’s winter mean that may not be
enough to avoid another abysmal water situation this year.
“We need well
above average,” Simmons said.
As part of a
settlement between various Basin stakeholders including the
Yurok Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine
Fisheries Service and the Klamath Water Users Association
that established augmented flows in the Klamath River for
the Bureau’s interim operations plan (in effect until 2022),
Reclamation committed that Upper Klamath Lake would not drop
below 4,142 feet during C’waam and Koptu spawning season in
April and May.
The notice of
intent said the Bureau instead dropped the lake level during
that time last year to 4,141.38 feet, “chasing many fish
away from their spawning ground and leading to the
desiccation of thousands of eggs.”
biological opinion’s Incidental
Take Statement, which
outlines the maximum numbers of fish each aspect of the
project can harm or kill without being subject to litigation
under the ESA, stipulated that Upper Klamath Lake levels may
not fall below 4,142 feet during two consecutive years. The
Tribes’ letter states that, since that already happened last
year, they’ll sue BOR under the Endangered Species Act if it
happens again this spring.
snowpack levels and streamflow forecasts for the spring and
summer are once again low this year, Gentry said he fears
that Reclamation won’t have enough water to maintain those
lake levels while also delivering water to the Klamath
Project. In a way, he said, filing the notice is also a
warning to Basin irrigators to plan for another abysmal
allocation this growing season.
“We felt it was
important to give people a heads up to consider how that
would impact agriculture this year,” he said.
the release’s messaging around the notice filing, which
suggested that Basin irrigators should “simply plan this
spring on not taking water from the natural environment
needed to fend off the imminent extinction of endangered
species” and “instead take this opportunity to begin
planning for long-term, sustainable practices that fit
within the limits of our ecosystem” was not well-received by
those in the ag community.
“It did seem to
try to send the message that it’s time to pull up the roots
and go,” he said.
The Tribes said
BOR will be in violation of Section 9 of the ESA if it
allows lake levels to drop, which prohibits the harm of
listed species, and Section 7, which requires federal
agencies to ensure that their actions don’t jeopardize
species or their habitat. And doing it a second time in a
row, it won’t have the protection of the incidental take to
fall back on.
“It is vitally
important to the Klamath Tribes that Reclamation meet its
obligations to the C’waam and Koptu, as well as to other ESA-protected
species — even if this means reducing or postponing Project
water deliveries for the coming season,” the letter said.
updated guidance from outgoing Secretary of Interior David
Bernhardt has said that Reclamation can’t satisfy ESA
requirements by curtailing Project water deliveries at the
expense of irrigators, though that isn’t expected to impact
Project operations until the operations plan expires at the
end of water year 2022. Simmons said BOR has to spend time
incorporating the guidelines into their operations plans.
“That’s not to
say that someone might not raise those issues in response to
a lawsuit,” he said.
Klamath Tribes also hold a time-immemorial instream water
right to Upper Klamath Lake through the Klamath Basin
Adjudication, tribal council member at-large Clay Dumont
said there is a temporary stay on the Tribes’ ability to
make water calls in Upper Klamath Lake that impact water
rights prior to 1906 (including the Project) until the
adjudication is complete. That leaves the ESA as their only
option to protect critical habitat for the suckers.
said he was disappointed to hear of the potential for more
litigation in the Basin, though folks on the ag side are
still engaged in their own share of court
battles surrounding water
in Upper Klamath Lake.
there’s a better hope for sucker recovery through a more
collaborative effort,” he said. “Everyone can argue as much
as they want about lake levels, and hopefully we’ll have
more scientific clarity on that from the [U.S. Geological
Survey report on how lake levels affect suckers] ... but I
think partnerships are the only hope for the suckers.”
letter did express a desire to avoid a potential suit by
working with the Bureau to ensure that lake levels remain at
or above 4,142 feet this April and May. Gentry said he
personally hopes the Tribes don’t have to enter into
litigation against the agency.
that the Biden Administration has inherited this situation
from the Trump Administration,” the letter said. “We
therefore welcome your cooperation in an effort to craft a
biologically and legally-sound management plan for the
spring/summer season of water year 2021 to ensure the
continued survival of C’waam and Koptu and the protection of
their critical habitat without the need for litigation.”
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