Judge Rejects Bid to Block Emergency Water to Klamath Salmon

Water pounds down the spillway from Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is increasing flows to aid migrating salmon. (Dan Brekke/KQED)
Water pounds down the spillway from Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is increasing flows to aid migrating salmon. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

A federal judge has rejected a bid by two of the biggest irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley to stop emergency water releases intended to help chinook salmon migrating up the Klamath and Trinity rivers in Northern California.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill in Fresno on Wednesday denied the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction sought by Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. The districts had argued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation lacks the authority to make the releases and that the water flowing downriver to improve conditions for salmon means less will be available for Central Valley farmers.

The judge ruled that the potential harm to salmon from drought conditions, which have reduced flows in the Klamath River and raised the chances for disease, outweighs the potential harm to farm operations.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ordered the emergency releases last week from reservoirs on the Trinity River, the Klamath's main tributary. The agency said it acted after determining that low flows and higher than normal temperatures on the Klamath could be ripe for an outbreak of a parasite and illness that killed more than 30,000 chinook in 2002.

The releases are scheduled to continue through mid-September and are expected to total about 25,000 to 30,000 acre-feet (roughly enough water to supply about 50,000 to 60,000 California households for a year).

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In his ruling, O'Neill cited a statement from tribal fisheries consultant Joshua Strange that the extra water was needed to prevent an outbreak of disease from a parasite known as Ich, short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, that can thrive when fish are crowded together -- as is happening now in the Klamath. The parasite was the prime killer of salmon in the 2002 drought.

In addition to the Indian tribes that depend on the salmon for subsistence, ceremonial and commercial fisheries had pressed the bureau to reverse an earlier decision to only release more water once significant numbers of fish began to die. They were joined by environmental and fishermen's groups.

"The court again recognized the scientific basis for the supplemental releases, and the best decision was made for the resource and the fishery," said Susan Masten, vice chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe. "Klamath (Basin) water is meant to support Klamath River fish, not industrial agriculture in the Central Valley."

In his ruling Wednesday, O'Neill expressed displeasure with the Bureau of Reclamation for undertaking the releases as an emergency action. He suggested the agency is acting without a "consistent, reasoned policy rationale" and that unless he gets a fuller opportunity to weigh that rationale in the future, his orders "may disappoint" federal officials.

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This post contains reporting from the Associated Press.

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