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EUREKA, Calif. — A new federal management plan for the Klamath River is proving to be a disaster for salmon, a lawsuit alleges.

The Yurok Tribe and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday, July 31, because the new plan, which went into effect April 1, has led to drought-level flows in the lower Klamath River and an increase in salmon with a potentially lethal parasite known as Ceratonova shasta, or C. shasta.

“We had no other choice but to take the Bureau to court because the Klamath (biological opinion) is killing the river,” said Joseph L. James, the chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “The Klamath salmon stocks are currently in an extremely fragile state as the fish population is only just now starting to rebound from previous disease outbreaks.”

“The Yurok people depend on the Klamath’s salmon runs for survival and we should not have to bear the brunt of the agency’s poor decision-making,” he continued. “During the course of the water year, the Yurok Tribe repeatedly sought modification of the plan to provide higher May-June flows, or barring that, at least the provision of an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water for emergency disease management flows.”

The National Marine Fisheries Services puts together the biological opinion that regulates how the waters of the Klamath River will be used, including storing water at the Upper Klamath Lake, providing water for irrigation purposes and supplying water to the Klamath River.

Mike Belchik, the Yurok Tribe’s senior water policy analyst who has been monitoring the Klamath River for over two decades, said the Bureau of Reclamation failed in its third obligation, which is what the tribe and PCFFA filed suit over.

“The new plan has only been in force since April 1, and it failed within the first couple months of implementation,” Belchik said. “We’re asking them to try again and come up with a plan that protects fish and, in the meantime, reinstate the old (biological opinion) with the court-ordered protected flows.”

"Reclamation cannot comment on ongoing litigation," said BOR spokeswoman Laura Williams. "That being said, I will say that we value our relationship with the Yurok Tribe. We appreciate their efforts to find agreement on how to manage the water for the benefit of all water interests in the Basin."

One major problem with the new biological opinion is that it doesn’t contain a contingency plan to allow for higher water flows when salmon are experiencing high rates of disease.

The high rates of disease can be curbed by augmenting the flow of the river at certain times of year, said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. Higher water flow, for instance, can dilute the number of spores in the river and protect fish from infection.

“When they’re concentrated and the water is warm, we’ve seen a 91 percent infection rate in the past few years,” Spain said.

During the droughts of 2014 and 2015, salmon infection rates were 84% and 91%.

Belchik said they were able to supply those flows to the river in order to protect the salmon on June 3, but that came at the expense of flows later in the year.

“As a consequence, the river’s at drought minimums right now,” Belchik said. “That was a desperation move just to save this year’s fish run.”

Part of the problem is plans to assess water needs must be submitted by an April 1 deadline, which Spain said needs to “be jettisoned for May 1.” Most of the rainfall is done by May 1, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about how much water will be available around April 1.

“You can’t really predict it,” Spain said. “We’ve had years of drought followed by years of back-to-back rainfall.”

Planning ahead of time is necessary and Belchik said they would “rather work with the Bureau of Reclamation and the farmers up there and come up with a solution.”

“We’d rather not take this route,” Belchik said.

But working with the Bureau of Reclamation has proven to be a challenge, he said. The bureau and fisheries service were taken to court in the past, but have continued to present problematic biological opinions that the courts found didn’t do enough to protect the salmon.

The tribe took the bureau to court when it exceeded the limits of endangered fish killed as set by the fisheries service’s 2013 biological opinion. While the bureau was coming up with a new plan, the court ordered high flows to scour the riverbed and control disease. It also ordered the bureau to provide for emergency water releases in case of a disease outbreak.

Those provisions were removed from the new plan. The plan also allows for a mortality rate of 56% while the fisheries service indicates that there should be no more than 10% mortality in order to restore a population, Spain said.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.