Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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 Environmental groups plan lawsuit against Klamath River sturgeon decision
Herald and News, February 21, 2003, combined local and wire reports

 Three environmental groups aren't happy with the government's decision not to list the green sturgeon, a fish found in the lower Klamath River system, as an endangered species last month, and Thursday notified the federal government that they plan to sue to reverse it.

The lawsuit is part of a larger strategy to pressure the government to devote more water to fish in the Klamath River, instead of diverting it for agricultural irrigation.

"Our strategy is to protect Northwest ecosystems," said Wendell Wood, southern Oregon field representative for the Oregon Natural Resources Council.  "Conservationists are frustrated that the only way we can protect ecosystems or wildlife is through the Endangered Species Act."

The groups bringing the suit are the ONRC, based in Portland, the Environmental Protections Information Center of Garberville, California, and the Center for Biological Diversity, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz.  The groups gave NOAA Fisheries, formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the 60-day notice required before a lawsuit can be filed seeking to reverse the agency's decision on the sturgeon's status.

Last November the same groups sued NOAA Fisheries to get it to make a decision on whether the fish should be listed because the decision was overdue.  The same three groups filled a petition to have the green sturgeon listed in June 2001, meaning the decision should have come last June.

On January 29, the agency announced it would not list the fish because there was no information indicating the species was dying out.

The environmentalists object to the agency's decision.

"Basically it ignored and omitted some of the science that argues for listing," said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Miller said NOAA Fisheries didn't take into account that more populations of green sturgeon have disappeared over 25 years then exist now.  He said the fish only spawn on the Lower Klamath, Rogue and Sacramento rivers, but once spawned on the Eel and the south fork of the Trinity rivers, and it is suspected they spawned in the San Joaquin and Umpqua rivers.

"If these were salmon they would be emergency listed tomorrow," he said.

The groups argue that green sturgeon are threatened by the loss of habitat to dams, logging, agriculture, mining and urban development, and being taken inadvertently by fisheries focused on white sturgeon.  Green sturgeon live up to 70 years and can reach lengths of more then 7 feet.  The fish spawns in fresh water but spends most of its time in estuaries and oceans.

Wood said the fish need more water.

"We would certainly believe that drawing the (Klamath) River down as low as it was drawn last summer, that that certainly isn't the thing to do," said Wood.  "This is a fish that needs big deep rivers."

After a summer of little water, dry fields and public protest in 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation restored water to the Klamath Reclamation Project in the summer of 2002.  By the end of the summer, 33,000 Chinook salmon had died in the lower reaches of the Klamath River from a gill rot disease.  Along with the Chinook, a few threatened coho salmon and green sturgeon were found dead.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to report on the fish kill, but the California Department of Fish and Game has said low water due to irrigation diversions upstream contributed to the spread of the deadly disease.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, sees the latest lawsuit by the ONRC and other groups as an attempt to take more water away from irrigators in the Klamath Basin and put it down the Klamath River for fish.

"The cumulative effect of these things is to allocate water away from irrigators and to the alleged need of fish species," he said.

He said the ONRC has been involved with an overwhelming amount of litigation in the last year.

The ONRC is also involved with a lawsuit challenging the 10-year management plan for threatened coho salmon and a proposed lawsuit that would force officials to review pumping water from the Klamath Basin into irrigation systems in the Rogue Valley.  The actions are designed to increase Klamath River flows.

Keppen said all these actions are dedicated to forcing farmers out of the Basin.

"And this lawsuit is just another example of this," he said.
 

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