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Bureau of Reclamation issues new three-year plan for Klamath River

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has issued a new three-year operating plan for the Klamath River, dedicating more water for endangered salmon while avoiding a “worst case scenario” for farmers and ranchers.

In exchange, a local tribe and fishing groups agreed to suspend a lawsuit filed against the agency in 2019 and withdrew their motion for a preliminary injunction that sought even more water — up to 50,000 acre-feet — to protect the fish from drought and disease.

Management plans, otherwise known as Biological Opinions or BiOps, are required under the federal Endangered Species Act to preserve threatened or endangered species, such as Klamath River coho salmon which were listed as threatened in 1997.

Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation issued a new five-year BiOp for the Klamath River working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service. The Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources objected, arguing the plan did not do enough to reverse declining fish runs.

The groups sued in July 2019, while at the same time the Klamath Irrigation District and Klamath Water Users Association also sued on opposite grounds, claiming the BiOp took too much water from farms and putting the region’s agriculture in a precarious situation.

However, the plan was ultimately scrapped in November 2019 when the bureau said it had previously received “erroneous information” from an outside source. The agencies scrambled to revise the BiOp ahead of the 2020 irrigation season, and hoped to complete their review by March 31.

Instead, the three-year interim plan will buy them more time to develop a longer-term BiOp without the looming threat of legal action.

In a joint statement, the Yurok Tribe and fishing groups said the interim BiOp “allocates more water for river flows in most hydrologic years to help the salmon,” allowing the groups to temporarily halt the lawsuit and withdraw their request for a preliminary injunction.

“We will always stand up and fight for our river and our people, because salmon are our lifeline,” said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe in northern California. “Our salmon and the Yurok people have suffered from mismanagement of the river, low flows and devastating disease outbreaks, and time is running out.”

Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources, said restoring salmon runs in the Klamath River benefits everyone.

“We needed to bring this lawsuit and it succeeded in helping salmon in the short-term,” Spain said. “Now we can turn to working together on longer-term river restoration.”

On the other hand, farmers in the federally managed Klamath Project — which gets most of its irrigation water from the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake — remain concerned about what more water in-stream will mean for them going forward.

According to the Klamath Water Users Association, the interim BiOp “increases flows to the Klamath River, but with less annual impact to irrigation than the injunction that was being requested.” The plan calls for up to an additional 23,000 acre-feet of water in stream during some hydrologic conditions, and none in others.

Paul Simmons, executive director of the KWUA, said the group is not necessarily happy with the BiOp, but knows there were worse possible outcomes.

“There may be a little more time and room for deliberative processes and collaboration for the next BiOp,” Simmons said. “We hope there will be a lot more opportunity for involvement.”

Tricia Hill, KWUA president a fourth-generation farmer at Walker Farms and Gold Dust Potato Processors in Malin, Ore., said farmers do not like where the interim plan leaves them, “but it’s the least of a few evils, and at least creates time to do things right the next time.”

Simmons added proper river management cannot continually rely on taking water from the Klamath Project to solve endangered species issues.

”It’s not equitable, and it’s also not effective,” Simmons said. “We would say that the flows in the main stem Klamath River that are required of the Klamath Project in many cases exceed natural conditions.”


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              Page Updated: Friday May 15, 2020 01:33 PM  Pacific

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