The Klamath River is prime habitat for coho salmon, like these juveniles, but that fish has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (Jimmy Peterson and Will Harling/Mid Klamath Watershed Council)
A few weeks ago, federally threatened coho salmon swam up the Klamath River, spawned and laid egg nests. But some of these nests, or redds, holding as many as 4,000 eggs, may never hatch, owing to reduced water levels in the river.
It’s the result of a severe water management bungling, say critics, by the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls how much water flows from Upper Klamath Lake into the river.
“My jaw is dropping right now at the way things are being managed,” said Michael Belchik, senior water policy analyst employed by the Yurok Tribe.
Tribal nations and commercial fishing groups argue the agency violated the Endangered Species Act when it reduced river flows in mid-March below a minimum level set in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biological opinion, a series of recommendations and requirements meant to help the salmon recover and ensure river management decisions don't push the species to the brink of extinction. The bureau blamed years of drought in the Klamath Basin.
The Yurok Tribe and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations have alerted the Bureau of Reclamation that they intend to sue.
“Fish need water. If they don't get water at any stage of their life, they will die. And so that's what's happening right now,” said Amy Cordalis, one of the lawyers bringing the lawsuit. Cordalis is a member of the Yurok Tribe and a commercial fisherwoman.
"Already, we've observed that redds are being stranded. We know that as we get [further] into March, that's when the juvenile baby fish will be in the river, and those will also be killed," Cordalis said.
The Bureau of Reclamation, which controls flows and water allocation on the Klamath, says it is caught between competing priorities. They need to keep water in Upper Klamath Lake, above the Klamath Project dam, for two species of suckerfish; also known by local tribes as c’waam and koptu, these are federally endangered species. And they need to keep water flowing into the river so it can support all the life that depends upon it, including salmon and all the species that rely on them. But, they say, there is not enough water in the whole system to meet the needs of the protected species in both the lake and the river.
“The adaptive management approach aims to address limited available water supply in the Klamath Basin, given potential future hydrology scenarios and competing needs for listed species in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River,” said the bureau in a Feb. 14 press release. The agency declined multiple requests for comment for this story.
Cuts to river flows could get more drastic as spring begins. Despite wet weather in the basin, the bureau has not yet signaled that it will increase water in the river.
“Every year is treated like a drought in the Klamath now,” said Craig Tucker, natural resources policy consultant for the Karuk Tribe. “So despite the fact we've had an above-average winter so far and it's still snowing and raining as we speak in the Klamath Basin, the bureau is taking these extraordinary measures.”
Beyond suckers vs. salmon
The suckers-vs.-salmon framing obscures a mistake in judgment made by the bureau last summer, critics say: allocating too much water to farmers for irrigation.
"They gave away too much water last year and so there's a deficit this year," said Glen Spain, regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. "We can't let that cycle go on."
“A lot of times this gets portrayed as a clash between two endangered species,” said Belchik, of the Yurok Tribe. “That's not what's happening here.”
Last summer the bureau allocated more water to agricultural users than it initially planned. In April, the bureau said in a press release that the Klamath Irrigation Project would be allocated approximately 50,000 acre-feet of water.
The irrigation project provides water to approximately 240,000 acres of cropland in south-central Oregon and north-central California. Farmers in the region grow potatoes and other crops.
However, bureau staff records reviewed by KQED list the actual amount of water delivered to the Klamath Irrigation Project during the 2022 water year as 95,000 acre-feet. If that extra allocation had not been made then, the lake levels would likely have been many tens of thousands of acre-feet higher.
“That's why it was really surprising to me when [the bureau] started talking about the need to cut river flows in early October. I was like, ‘What is going on here?’” said Belchik. “This was entirely preventable.”
Worries of an ecological collapse
The dire situation now on the river echoes uncomfortably with a devastating year from two decades ago.
"And so the potential implication of this year's management decision from the Bureau of Reclamation and cutting these flows is that in two, three, four years, we could see [additional] closure[s] of the West Coast salmon fishery because the Klamath stocks are so important," said Cordalis. "That's what's at stake here."
The reduced flows could also harm Chinook salmon, which are important food for endangered populations of orcas.
Prompting a lawsuit
The lawsuit being filed by the Yurok Tribe, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and Earthjustice will request an emergency injunction to immediately return water flows to the minimum amount required.
“It's simply not legal in our view, for them to take that water from the fish,” said Spain, with the PCFFA. “Fish need actual real water in the river. And that's what our lawsuit is going to demand, pointing out that it is illegal to go below the minimum flows. That's what minimum flows mean. That is the minimum. You don't go below the minimum."
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Reclamation must consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to analyze the implications of a decision that deviates from how it is normally supposed to operate.
The lawsuit contends this consultation was not completed.
"So that means two things," said Cordalis. "One, they're not meeting the requirements of the ESA. But two, which I think is even more concerning, is that the federal government has no idea really the scope of harm that will be created by this management decision."
(A National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson declined to comment on whether the requirement had been met, citing pending litigation.)
In a joint Feb. 13 statement (PDF), the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife said that water retained in the lake as a result of flows dipping below the minimum must be used only for fish. They also said they would continue meeting and engaging with Klamath Basin tribes.
Spain said the bureau has an outdated mindset — they used to be all about providing irrigation water.
"There are a lot of very good people and very good scientists within the Bureau of Reclamation," he said. "But the culture of the agency has always been that their job is to provide irrigation water. There's some of that old culture still left. It's not a science-based decision to prioritize irrigation water over fish and wildlife needs. That's a political decision."
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