KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A circuit judge in Oregon has sided with
Klamath Basin farmers in a water rights case that could have
future implications for water availability and deliveries in the
The lawsuit, filed by the Klamath Irrigation District, concerns
stored water in Upper Klamath Lake as part of the Bureau of
Reclamation’s Klamath Project, serving more than 230,000 acres
of farmland straddling Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Earlier this year, the bureau released water from Upper Klamath
Lake — impounded by the Link River Dam in Klamath Falls — to
boost streamflows for coho salmon in the lower Klamath River.
The salmon are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species
But the Klamath Irrigation District sued, claiming the bureau
does not have an established right or permit from the Oregon
Water Resources Department to use the stored water.
The district also claimed the bureau’s releases for salmon
impaired the district’s ability to deliver permitted irrigation
water to its members.
Marion County Circuit Judge Channing Bennett ruled in favor of
the district on July 30, and indicated he will sign an order
directing OWRD to halt the bureau’s releases without an
established water right, permit or license.
“No party has provided this court with law or fact which allows
the bureau the right to use stored water in the (Upper Klamath
Lake) without a permit or license,” Bennett wrote in his
opinion. “OWRD’s failure is a deprivation of a precious resource
belonging to the people of Oregon. OWRD failure is also an
infringement of property rights of established users, permittees
While the ruling seems to favor Klamath Project irrigators, Ty
Kliewer, a basin rancher and president of the Klamath Irrigation
District, said it is not clear what the immediate impact will be
since Bennett has yet to sign a final order.
Kliewer cautioned producers against planning for additional
water right away. “The court has to issue a final order, OWRD
has to do what is required, and even still that may not be the
end,” he said.
A spokeswoman for OWRD said the department does not comment on
Courtney Mathews, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s
Klamath Basin Area Office, said the bureau was not named in the
lawsuit, though it continues to operate the Klamath Project
consistent with law.
the ESA, the bureau must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure the
Klamath Project does not negatively impact vulnerable fish
species, including coho in the lower Klamath River and
endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.
resulting management plan, known as a Biological Opinion, or
BiOp, must be updated every five years. In April, the bureau
issued an interim three-year BiOp while the agencies develop a
new long-term plan after the most recent 2019 update was found
to contain erroneous data.
the interim BiOp calls for “flushing flows” from Upper Klamath
Lake into the Klamath River during drought years to wash away a
deadly fish-killing parasite known as C. shasta that thrives in
warm, slow-moving water.
Klamath Basin grapples with extreme drought, farmers in the
Klamath Project saw their water allotment drop by more than half
to 140,000 acre-feet, in part to accommodate the flushing flows.
Nathan Rietmann, the attorney for the Klamath Irrigation
District, said the lawsuit against OWRD is about
“straightforward enforcement of state water law.”
“The court applied the law the way it should be applied,”
Despite the outcome, Kliewer said irrigators should not assume
any increase in this year’s project allocation.
managers for the irrigation districts and farmers have a done a
great job in an impossible situation,” he said. “We can’t break
the bank now.”
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