Tribes sue federal government over water releases to farmers
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The Klamath
Tribes are suing the federal government under the Endangered
Species Act to halt water diversions from Upper Klamath Lake
for irrigated agriculture along the Oregon-California
The lawsuit, filed May 9 against the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation,
seeks to protect two species of endangered sucker fish,
C’waam and Koptu, that are endemic in the Upper Klamath
C’waam and Koptu are culturally
significant to the Klamath Tribes, used historically for
food and ceremonial purposes. Both species were listed as
endangered in 1988, and populations that once numbered in
the tens of millions have since declined to fewer than
50,000 surviving fish, according to tribal estimates.
Reclamation operates the Klamath
Project, delivering irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake
for 170,000 acres of farmland straddling Southern Oregon and
Northern California. Farmers in the basin grow potatoes,
onions, horseradish, garlic, mint and hay, among other
As part of an environmental assessment
with the USFWS — known as a Biological Opinion, or BiOp —
Reclamation must maintain a minimum surface elevation of
4,142 feet in Upper Klamath Lake during April and May for
C’waam and Koptu to access shoreline spawning habitat.
However, with the basin suffering
through its third consecutive year of extreme drought, the
agencies acknowledged there is not enough water in the
system to meet that objective.
Despite this, Reclamation announced in
April it would release approximately 50,000 acre-feet of
water for irrigators. That is just 15% of full demand.
Despite the limited allocation the
Tribes argue the government is willingly violating the ESA
while C’waam and Koptu slip closer to extinction.
In a statement, the Tribes claimed
they “see no alternative” but to sue the federal agencies.
“When their own longstanding formula
(driving their own ecologically inadequate BiOp) showed that
zero water could be safely taken from endangered fish for
agriculture, (Reclamation) simply tossed it aside and made
the cynical political calculation that they could ignore the
ESA with impunity, allocate water to Project farmers and
hasten the imminent extinction of fish that have lived here,
and only here, in the homeland of the Klamath Tribes for
thousands of years,” the Tribes stated.
Clayton Dumont, a tribal councilman
and chairman-elect, said the agencies “have proven
repeatedly that we cannot trust them to do the right thing,
follow the law, and do even the minimum necessary to sustain
our treaty-protected fish.”
The Tribes are asking a district judge
in Medford, Ore. to suspend Reclamation’s 2022 Operations
Plan for the Klamath Project until it complies with the ESA.
This year’s water supply for the
Klamath Project is the second-lowest in history, ahead of
only 2021, when irrigators received no allotment from Upper
The Klamath Water Users Association,
which represents 1,200 family farms and ranches in the
Project, has criticized the government for denying them
adequate water, particularly when global food supplies are
threatened overseas by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For context, the KWUA says the
anticipated 50,000 acre-foot Project allotment represents no
more than 5% of all the water that will be used this season
from Upper Klamath Lake. About 40% will be sent down the
Klamath River for ESA-listed salmon, 28% will be held in the
lake for C’waam and Koptu and 27% will be lost to
“Win, lose or draw, this lawsuit is
not going to make any difference for the suckers, anyway,”
said Paul Simmons, the group’s executive director.
Reclamation is providing $20 million
in immediate drought assistance to farmers, paying them to
fallow land in exchange for reducing water demand. The
Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, which administers
the funds, is accepting applications through June 15.
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