OAKLAND -- The Karuk Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources and Klamath Riverkeeper filed a motion Wednesday to intervene in a Siskiyou County court case challenging the authority of the California Department of Fish and Game to regulate water diversions for farmland irrigation.

The groups are concerned that the outcome of the lawsuit -- which focuses on the Shasta and Scott rivers in Siskiyou county -- could impact the recovery of depleted salmon populations across the state.

”These two key headwater tributaries of the Klamath River historically hosted healthy salmon runs that have steeply declined in recent years because of increased farm irrigation,” the release said. “Both rivers often run dry in summer months due to excessive water diversions.”

The Siskiyou County Farm Bureau filed its lawsuit on March 25, alleging that water diverters are not legally obligated to inform Fish and Game of their water diversions and that the agency has no authority to regulate these diversions.

”These guys think we're still living in the Old West,” Leaf Hillman, director of Natural Resources for the Karuk Tribe, said in the release. “In today's world, we have laws designed to balance the needs of agriculture with the needs of fishing communities. Like it or not, they have to share the water, air and earth with other people.”

According to the groups, the Farm Bureau's key argument is that the word 'divert' in Fish and Game code refers not to water diverted for irrigation, but to the physical diversion of the natural flow to a new water course. The Farm Bureau insists that landowners taking water from the rivers to water their hay fields are not 'diverting' but 'extracting' water and are therefore exempt from the law.

The groups called the interpretation “convoluted.”

Wendy Park, attorney for the public interest law firm Earthjustice, challenged the bureau's interpretation.

”Whatever they call it, this rampant dewatering of California streams is leaving threatened species such as coho salmon no chance of survival,” she said in the release. “Indeed, coho are now at the brink of extinction in the Scott and Shasta rivers because in the past, the state department of Fish and Game did very little to control diversions in these watersheds. Now that the coho are almost gone, Fish and Game needs every tool in its box to give them a shot at recovery.”

Earthjustice is representing the tribal, fishing and environmental groups in the Siskiyou County case.

For a copy of the Farm Bureau complaint and the Karuk et al motion to intervene, go to the website www.earthjustice.org/news