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Klamath irrigation

An irrigated field near Tulelake.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew a number of Trump-era memoranda concerning the Klamath Project on Thursday, citing a lack of consultation with Klamath Basin tribes, and committed her staff to work with stakeholders on a long-term solution to the Basin’s water crisis.

“These documents were issued without government-to-government consultation with affected Tribes and do not reflect the current administration’s goals for long-term water recovery and economic restoration in this region,” Haaland said. “The documents also conflict with longstanding departmental positions and interpretation of governing law and should not be relied upon for any purpose.”

In January, before President Biden’s inauguration, Interior Department officials released a reassessment of whether the Bureau of Reclamation has an obligation to curtail water deliveries to the Klamath Project in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. It included several memos and legal analyses which are now null and void following the Secretary’s memo.

For several decades, Reclamation has been compelled by policies from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to keep water in Upper Klamath Lake to maintain habitat for endangered C’waam and Koptu (Lost River and shortnose suckers) and provide flows on the Klamath River to prevent parasitic disease outbreaks in threatened coho salmon. In dry years, that means there’s little to no water left for Project irrigators.

Following former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Commissioner of Reclamation Brenda Burman’s visit to the Basin last summer, lawyers representing irrigators requested that the Department conduct the review. Through several memos, letters and analyses, Interior staff communicated that Reclamation was overstepping its authority by using water ostensibly reserved for the Project to protect endangered species. They issued guidance for Reclamation’s future operations that would have likely resulted in less water sent down the Klamath River and more water diverted to the project from Upper Klamath Lake had the Bureau adopted it.

Basin tribes critiqued that guidance as one-sided, saying they were not consulted during the review. In her Thursday memo, Haaland said that warranted its withdrawal.

“The previous administration did a bunch of letters and memos without really talking to the tribes,” said Craig Tucker, natural resources director for the Karuk Tribe. “I really applaud Secretary Haaland and the administration for really being upfront that these kinds of decisions require consultation with affected tribes.”

Reclamation had not planned to incorporate the Trump-era Project guidance into its operations for this summer, but those memos would have potentially impacted currently brewing legal cases. On Wednesday, the Oregon Water Resources Department ordered Reclamation not to release stored water from Upper Klamath Lake, in accordance with a court decision last year that compelled OWRD to allow water to move only in accordance with the findings of the Klamath Basin Adjudication.

However, OWRD’s order also stated that, as a federal agency, Reclamation may be bound by other policies the state cannot override.

“Nothing in this order alters, relieves or releases any person, state or federal agency from any and all rights, duties or obligations arising from other sources of law including without limitation other state laws or rules, federal laws and related federal agency regulations, federal or state court orders or contracts,” the order read.

Following OWRD’s order, it’s possible the now-revoked Project guidance (not OWRD) would have prevented Reclamation from fulfilling ESA requirements to the extent it does now. However, even without Haaland withdrawing the documents, Reclamation’s operations for the current water year would likely have remained unchanged.

“While we are gratified that the order states explicitly that it does not alter, relieve or release any person, state or federal agency from its duties and obligations arising from other law, we are disappointed that such an order could be contemplated that ignores the substantial downriver interests below Link River and Keno Dams,” the Yurok Tribe said in a statement.

Klamath Water Users Association issued a statement expressing disappointment with the memo withdrawal while asserting that it is not the cause for this summer’s severe water shortages.

“We accept that it has occurred, and we are committed to bringing about a judicial resolution of these same issues at the earliest possible time,” the statement read. “There must be a resolution of those legal issues and, equally important, committed engagement from several major parties, including Interior, in order to bring stability to Klamath Basin communities.”

“This is going to be a tough year for all of us in the Basin,” said Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery. “We appreciate the Secretary’s earnest commitment to consulting with the Tribes before any more decisions are made that affect our river and our fisheries.”

The Secretary also withdrew an August 2020 decision by Reclamation concerning Klamath River flows for the Yurok Tribe’s Boat Dance. The traditional ceremony required 7,000 acre-feet released from Link River Dam to produce sufficient water levels in the river, which Reclamation denied citing drought conditions for Water Year 2020.

However, following improvements in water availability in the late summer, the Bureau sent upwards of 20,000 acre-feet of water to farms and wildlife refuges in the Project, providing none for the Boat Dance.

Haaland nixed the Bureau’s Boat Dance memo “to the extent it may have precedential effect on future operations.”

Thursday’s memo was Haaland’s first foray into Klamath Basin issues as Secretary of Interior. In addition to revoking those Trump-era policies, she committed Department staff to working toward both short- and long-term solutions to the Basin’s water crisis.

“Through this memorandum, I am directing each of you to work collaboratively, across our agency and across the Federal Government, and with our State, local, Tribal and community partners to identify steps that can be taken to minimize the impacts of upcoming water allocation decisions and develop a long-term plan to facilitate conservation and economic growth in the Klamath Basin,” Haaland wrote.

“We know this is a hard year for everybody on the Klamath, and we support long-term solutions that focus on sustainability from the top to the bottom of the basin and bring demand more in line with available water,” the Yurok Tribe said.

Beginning with the Bush Administration in the early 2000s, each iteration of the Interior Department has sent a high-ranking representative to facilitate solutions-focused negotiations among Basin stakeholders. Tucker said having someone from the federal government organize these discussions is crucial.

“You really need someone from the administration to do this, because you have such an alphabet soup of federal agencies involved,” he said. “We hope she’ll designate someone for this role that’s got the political capital and leadership skills to get things done.”

Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued a separate joint statement concerning what is shaping up to be an even drier and more volatile year than 2001 and echoing the need for collaboration among stakeholders.

“The Departments of the Interior and Agriculture recognize the urgency of this crisis and its impacts on farmers, Tribes, and communities, and are committed to an all-hands-on-deck approach that both minimizes the impacts of the drought and develops a long-term plan to facilitate conservation and economic growth.”