The Klamath Tribes are suing the Biden administration over its decision to release some water from Upper Klamath Lake for use by drought-besieged farmers and other irrigators.

That’s not the only grief the U.S. government is getting over its decision to release a small amount of water in the Klamath Basin as the region faces severe drought conditions.

Oregon-based Klamath Tribes contend the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to release 50,000-acre feet of water for the Klamath Project violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The tribes are made up of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin peoples in southern Oregon and northern California.

 The Klamath Tribes argue the release of water will hurt the Lost River sucker fish and shortnose sucker fish. Both are listed as endangered species. Don Gentry, the Oregon’s tribe’s chairman, has written the heads of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notifying them of the intent to sue the government alleging ESA violations. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will provide 50,000 acre-feet of water this season to Klamath Project irrigators as the region grapples with a third consecutive year of extreme drought conditions.

That is about 15% of what farmers say they need from the Klamath Reclamation Project, which gets irrigation allotments from the dammed river water in Upper Klamath Lake. Farmers did not get any water allocations last year as the region faces the severe drought conditions.

Gentry said in his April 14 letter to USBR Acting Commissioner David Palumbo and USFWS Director Marsha Williams that a planned Klamath water release will negative impact spawning for the sucker fish. It will be the third lawsuit the tribes has brought against the federal government in the last five years, Gentry said in his letter.

“We implore you to rescind the 2022 plan and operate the project this year consistent with the law, which requires the prioritization of the needs of the C’Waam and Koptu,” Gentry said using native language terms to describe the suckerfish. The fish also have spiritual, cultural and historical significance to the tribes.

In an interview with the Herald and & News, Gentry said he was disappointed in the Biden’s administration’s decision to release Klamath water. “We want people to follow the law,” Gentry said. He said the U.S. government has a moral obligation to abide by the ESA.

Push for farming

On the other side of the proverbial river, the region’s two Republicans lawmakers — U.S. Reps. Doug LaMalfa, who represents Northern California, and Cliff Bentz, who represents Southern Oregon and the Klamath Basin — want the federal government to find a solution for the water and drought issues that takes into account the importance of local agriculture.

They wrote the Biden administration earlier this month pushing for one-third of the available Klamath water to be released for farming. 

The local lawmakers want to see the U.S. government adopt broader policies to release more water so farmers can boost production with Russia’s war in Ukraine sparking concerns about food shortages and inflation (which is already at 40-year highs in the U.S.).

The war and U.S sanctions on Russia and its ally Belarus are raising concerns about shortages and rising prices of commodities such as wheat, corn, fertilizers and crude oil.

“President Biden has repeatedly warned of coming food shortages. Food prices are hitting record price surges. Over 275 million people are facing food insecurity,” said LaMalfa Friday, referencing pending international meetings on potential food shortages.

The California Republican wants the U.S. to boost domestic food production — and that takes more water.

“Unfortunately, the federal and state governments are making sure that they don’t have the water needed to grow food due to misguided and ineffective environmental flows,” LaMalfa said in a statement. “At a time like this, with so much at stake, why shut down domestic food production? The growing season is now. We need an urgent response to the looming food shortage crisis. The only rapid, reasonable, and sound solution is to deliver water to U.S. farmers now.”

Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, told the Herald and News he is also hoping to see more civility and collaboration on the water crisis which stems from severe drought conditions.

“Those things seem to be in shorter supply than water,” said Simmons of the need to find common ground. “That’s what we need,”

The water users group — which represents farmers and other irrigation users — is also upset with the smaller allocation this year after no water was released in 2021. They worry about the future for local farmers in the basin and one of the larger agricultural regions in the Pacific Northwest.

Concerns about salmon

The Yurok Tribe, whose California-based reservation is located along a stretch of the Klamath River, worries about river flows impacting salmon runs.

“The Bureau of Reclamation’s 2022 Plan provides a reduced flushing flow to the upper Klamath River and protects minimum flows at Iron Gate Dam," Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers said in a news release. "Although we are gratified that the river is afforded minimal protections under this plan, it is no time for celebration. Salmon runs will continue to suffer under these conditions, and as climate change intensifies, such protections will become increasingly important. 

“The Upper and Lower Klamath Basin once functioned as an integrated system that provided abundant salmon, suckers and waterfowl with minimal intervention. The fact that these systems now appear to be in conflict with each other is a direct result of the ecological collapse brought on by water withdrawals, the loss of Lower Klamath and Tule Lakes, dams and mining. It is our duty to bring this system back into balance and we will never stop working toward that goal," Myers said in a statement to the Herald & News,