KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A judge has ruled against the Klamath Tribes in a lawsuit that accuses federal regulators of violating the Endangered Species Act by letting water levels fall too low for sucker fish to spawn in a lake that also feeds an elaborate irrigation system along the Oregon-California border.
The ruling, reported Friday by the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, comes as the region confronts one of the driest years in memory. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last month announced that farmers who irrigate from its Klamath Project water-management area will get so little water that farming may not even be worthwhile this summer.
At the same time, the drought has brought to a head a conflict between the water needs of two protected fish species in the region after decades of instability. The Klamath Tribes consider the federally endangered sucker fish central to their creation story and culture, while the Yurok hold the federally threatened coho salmon in the lower Klamath River sacred and rely on them as a critical food source.
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With scarce water in the Klamath Basin, the tribes are left to try to use the courts to secure enough of the precious liquid for the respective fish species.
The Klamath Tribes sued the bureau earlier this year, arguing it had violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing the Upper Klamath Lake to dip below a certain level in 2020 and 2021 that is necessary for successful sucker fish spawning.
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The tribes asked the judge to order the bureau to reduce downriver water releases from the lake while the rest of the case worked through the courts, but U.S. District Judge Michael McShane declined. If granted, the order would have meant less water in the Klamath River to combat disease outbreaks downstream that are a huge concern for the Yurok and Karuk tribes and a threat to coho salmon.
The bureau argued it wasn’t liable for harm done to sucker fish this year because of the extreme drought and has no control over how much water enters Upper Klamath Lake in dry times.
“The Bureau cannot control the current hydrologic conditions; they can only work within these natural limitations,” McShane wrote. “The Bureau is not responsible for the unprecedented drought this year.”
Jay Weiner, the Klamath Tribes’ lawyer, said his clients were still reviewing the ruling and were not able to comment on the specifics.
“It’s safe to say we’re disappointed,” he told the newspaper.
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The situation in the Klamath Basin was set in motion more than a century ago, when the U.S. government began drawing water from a network of shallow lakes and marshlands and funneling it into the dry desert uplands. Homesteads were offered by lottery to World War II veterans who grew hay, grain and potatoes and pastured cattle.
The project turned the region into an agricultural powerhouse — some of its potato farmers supply In ’N Out burger — but permanently altered an intricate water system that spans hundreds of miles from southern Oregon to Northern California.
In 1988, two species of sucker fish were listed as endangered under federal law. Less than a decade later, coho salmon that spawn downstream from the reclamation project, in the lower Klamath River, were listed as threatened.
The water necessary to sustain the coho salmon downstream comes from Upper Klamath Lake — the main holding tank for the farmers’ irrigation system. The sucker fish in the same lake need at least 1 to 2 feet of water covering the gravel beds that they use as spawning grounds.
The salmon in the lower Klamath River periodically suffer from a disease outbreak because of lower-than-needed water flows. The Yurok Tribe says the river needs enough water flowing down it to “flush” out worms that host disease spores that infect and kill salmon.