Klamath Salmon Plan Found Illegal

Judge tells feds their irrigation plan leaves too little water for fish


Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice: 206.343.7340 x33


Glen Spain, PCFFA: 541.689.2000


Bob Hunter, WaterWatch: 541.772.6116

A federal court rejected the Bush administration’s plan to protect threatened Klamath River coho salmon from the harmful effects of the Klamath Irrigation Project. The court ruled that the plan was illegal because it fell well short of meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Salmon advocates have been pointing to the plan’s inadequacies since it was released in May 2002.

“This decision gives hope to the families that depend on Klamath River salmon,” said Glen Spain of PCFFA. “This case was about restoring balance to the basin so that fishermen, Native Americans, and irrigators can all receive a fair share of the water. We will now work on a new vision for the basin, and the legislation recently introduced by Congressman Thompson is the perfect place to start.” PCFFA is the west coast’s largest organization of commercial fishing families.

A coalition of commercial fishermen, conservation groups, and Congressman Mike Thompson filed the lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and Bureau of Reclamation in September 2002 because the agencies’ 10-year plan failed to leave sufficient water in the river for salmon and relied on future, speculative actions from the states of California and Oregon to make up for the missing water. In the first five months of the challenged plan, low flows caused by unbalanced irrigation deliveries killed over 33,000 adult salmon.

Because Klamath River coho are protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service must approve any long-term irrigation plan devised by the Bureau of Reclamation. In May 2002, the Fisheries Service held that the Bureau’s plan would jeopardize the continued survival of the Klamath River coho. However, when the Fisheries Service issued its final approval of the Bureau’s plan, it failed to require adequate measures to protect the salmon.

Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice said, “A promise to provide a fraction of the water salmon need, sometime in the future, from somewhere, meets neither the requirements of the law nor of sound science. The fish in the Klamath are in real trouble right now; they need real action, not vague promises.”

Inadequate river flows that result when the Bureau of Reclamation diverts water for irrigation in the high desert hurt salmon in a number of ways. Newly hatched salmon, called fry, need safe habitat in and around bank vegetation to hide and feed. Lower river flows force these young fish into the mainstream of the river where they are easy prey. Year-old salmon, called smolts, need adequate river flows in the spring to safely make the journey to the Pacific Ocean. Adult salmon, returning upriver to spawn, are hurt or killed by high water temperatures and poor water quality due to low river flows.

“The Bush Administration has worked hard to maintain the status quo in the Klamath Basin, but last summer the status quo killed 33,000 salmon,” said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon. “Hopefully this court ruling will end the Administration’s policy of denial and delay and put us on track to actually solve this crisis.”

The Klamath was once the third mightiest salmon-producing river in the continental US, behind only the Columbia and Sacramento in productivity. The River has been reduced to a shadow of its former self largely as a result of the Bureau of Reclamations’ re-plumbing of its headwaters to maximize irrigation in the arid upper basin desert. The long-term answer could include buying back some of the agriculture land in the Klamath Basin to reduce water demand.

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of PCFFA and Institute for Fisheries Resources, joined by The Wilderness Society, WaterWatch of Oregon, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath Forest Alliance, Headwaters, and Congressman Mike Thompson. Plaintiffs were joined by the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes, and amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs were filed by the Cities of Arcata and Eureka, Del Norte, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties, and the Humboldt Bay, Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District.

For more information, please visit the Klamath Basin Coalition website.

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