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Klamath Salmon Caught in Legal Crossfire, Again

PHOTO: Is agriculture the top priority of the Bureau of Reclamation in the Klamath Basin, to the extent that salmon runs are harmed? That's the charge of conservation groups. Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.
PHOTO: Is agriculture the top priority of the Bureau of Reclamation in the Klamath Basin, to the extent that salmon runs are harmed? That's the charge of conservation groups. Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.
April 5, 2013

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – Two Oregon conservation groups say they intend to sue the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation for mismanaging water in the Klamath Basin.

Oregon Wild and WaterWatch of Oregon are charging that the federal agency has moved ahead with a new water management plan for irrigators before completing a scientific and environmental review of how it will affect salmon in the Klamath River.

Steve Pedery, conservation director with Oregon Wild, says in a scarce water year like the one that is predicted, the bureau's new flow recommendations won't work for the endangered fish.

"It would result in much lower flows in the Klamath River,” he says, “and we really don't see any scientific basis for that. This seems to us to really be more about, in a drought year, maximizing water deliveries for agribusiness at the expense of salmon and wildlife."

The groups filed legal paperwork on Thursday putting the government on notice that they'll file a lawsuit. They say their goal is to prevent a repeat of conditions in 2002 in which low, overly warm water led to a massive fish kill in the Klamath Basin.

The Bureau of Reclamation doesn't comment on pending legal action, but spokesman Pete Lucero in the Sacramento district office points to a 2012 Biological Opinion as proof that the agency has been doing its research.

"We sit around the table very closely with all those agencies who have a say-so in how we operate,” he says, “and we have all agreed and come to the understanding that the operations that we're working right now are appropriate for the type of water year we have."

Lucero adds the agency tries to balance the needs of agriculture and endangered fish.

Last year, the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northern California exercised its tribal water rights to force the bureau to release more water into a Klamath tributary where salmon migrate. Regina Chichizola, the tribe’s communications coordinator, says it isn't the need to share the water that’s of concern.

"That is something that happens everywhere when there's a drought situation,” she says. “But in the Klamath, the farmers are always priority and the fish are never a priority. And for the Hoopa people, we are constantly having to fight for every drop of water for the Klamath salmon, so that they don't die."

The tribe is not part of this week's legal action, but Chichizola says it will monitor the case, and the Bureau of Reclamation's actions, throughout the year.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR