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Court: Water Releases to Protect Salmon in California Move Forward

Judge agrees water from Trinity River needed to prevent another fish kill disaster on lower Klamath
August 22, 2013
Fresno, CA —

A federal court today ruled that water releases planned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the migration of Chinook salmon into the Klamath/Trinity rivers in Northern California should move forward.

After a two day hearing in Fresno, CA, the court rejected demands by agricultural interests in California’s Central Valley led by the Westlands Water District, to block the releases, which were supposed to have started August 13.  After hearing from half a dozen fisheries experts who all agreed that the water release program was supported by the science, the Court ruled for the water release program to move forward.

The Court concluded,

“… On balance, considering the significantly lower volume of water now projected to be involved and the potential and enormous risk to the fishery of doing nothing, the Court finds it in the public interest to permit the augmentation to proceed.” (Page 19)

Chinook salmon.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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“Commercial fishermen and Indian Tribes explained to the Court how another large-scale fish kill would devastate the coastal economy,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA). “This decision is wonderful news for a California native salmon run and all the coastal communities who depend on the salmon for their sustainable livelihoods.”

The Court also noted,

“… the flow augmentation releases are designed to prevent a potentially serious fish die off from impacting salmon populations entering the Klamath River estuary. There is no dispute and the record clearly reflects that the 2002 fish kill had severe impacts on commercial fishing interests, tribal fishing rights, and the ecology, and that another fish kill would likely have similar impacts.” (Page 16)

Attorney Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice who intervened on behalf of PCFFA said, “The decision to protect salmon also protects the Northern California coastal communities. Salmon runs can provide jobs forever if managed correctly. The science is clear that additional releases are needed to protect this priceless resource.”

This year is unusual in that extremely low flow conditions in the lower Klamath are occurring at the same time fisheries managers expect the second-largest run of chinook on record to begin arriving within days. Federal, state and tribal salmon biologists have been gravely concerned that this confluence of high runs and low flows will lead to another mass fish kill like the one that occurred in 2002.

Experts explained to the judge how water conditions in the basin this year are almost identical to those in 2002, except with a far larger adult run of chinook. The undisputed evidence before the Court was that the risk of another fish kill was grave.

The 2002 fish kill led to coast-wide closures of commercial, recreational and tribal fishing, leading to serious harm to the economy. Congress ultimately appropriated $60 million in disaster assistance to help coastal communities, an amount that was widely regarded as a fraction of what was needed.

Read the court decision.

Contacts

Jan Hasselman, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 1025

Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, (541) 689-2000

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.