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Next week could prove to be a watershed moment for the Basin as a federal court judge in San Francisco is due to hear arguments for and against releasing water from Upper Klamath Lake to protect endangered suckerfish in the lake.

The Klamath Tribes filed for injunctive relief May 23 against the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, calling on defendants to take “immediate, emergency measures” to provide enough water for suckerfish to survive in the lake. The Tribes argue insufficient water in the lake could lead to extinction for the fish.

The shortnosed sucker and Lost River sucker are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Tribes say the federal government must provide enough water to comply with the act.

The Tribes requested a preliminary injunction that could lead to a shutoff of irrigation water, and on June 27 an association of some 12 irrigation groups filed objections to the request. Several local irrigation districts and Klamath County Commissioners have filed friend of the court briefs seeking to overturn the injunction. A hearing is scheduled for Friday, July 20, in front of Judge William Orrick of San Francisco. The Herald and News plans to be in the courtroom.

Difficult times AHEAD

The judge may rule straight from the bench and, if the injunction is granted, it means all irrigation water that comes from the lake will essentially be shut off to farmers. Or, he may ask for additional filings and things will remain pretty much as is, until he rules.

Either way, it’s a difficult time for the Basin. For the tribes, who believe they have no other option but to file for the fish protection, the issue is pitting neighbor against neighbor. For the irrigators, a shutoff mid-summer, after the crops are in, would be a financial disaster. And, it is likely that shutoff could carry into next year.

We hope the judge can strike a balance to satisfy both sides, but it’s a longshot.

Dam removal on the plate, too

Meanwhile, the organization charged with removal of the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, visited with the Herald and News editorial board about its recently released plan for decommissioning the dams. (You can see the presentation on our Facebook page, and, there’s a related podcast).

Mark Bransom, the director for the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, and Dave Meurer, KRRC’s community liaison, met with the H&N board on Friday.

Removal of the four dams is believed to be the biggest such project in the West, tentatively scheduled to start in 2021, with a cost approaching $400 million.

The goal is to create a natural flow in the lower river so that spore bacteria harmful to Coho and Chinook salmon will be flushed downstream. Now, with the slow-moving water, the bacteria have a comfortable environment to thrive, putting the salmon at risk. If it works, more water could become available for irrigators.

Economic boom? Take the survey

On the economic horizon is that creation of some 400 to 500 jobs needed for the deconstruction of the dams, Bransom said, plus up to 1,500 indirect jobs that would support that work.

“We also think that the long-term benefits will be enhanced recreation and tourism opportunities for fishing and water recreation,” Bransom said.

Having 500 workers descend on an area that has little support infrastructure now is a big concern. Bransom noted that one large construction firm — Peter Kiewit and Sons — are concerned about that as well. Kiewit has an online survey asking residents that very question. Take the survey here:

We would hope, once the dust settles, that we’ll see some of these contentious issues laid to rest eventually.