EUREKA, Calif. — Northern California tribes say critically important dam water releases meant to protect threatened salmon on the Klamath River from deadly parasitic disease outbreaks are being contested by irrigators and water districts in the Klamath Basin as they face drought conditions.
Basin ranchers, farmers and water districts argue in a federal court filing this month that the potential for fish disease outbreaks this year is low, but that the drought conditions the Basin faces could cause significant economic impacts to their region.
“The potential ruinous impacts for family farms and ranches in 2018 are real,” the six water districts, irrigators and organizations stated in a March 7 court filing to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
“It’s equally painful for tribal interests,” Hoopa Valley Tribe Fisheries director Mike Orcutt said Wednesday.
Yurok Tribe counsel Amy Cordalis said Wednesday that “it is critically important to the survival of these runs of fish in the Klamath that this year’s run is protected.”
Since the filing was made, a drought was declared by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown for Klamath County earlier this week.
The Klamath River dam water releases were secured in early 2017 after the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Yurok Tribe and organizations filed a federal lawsuit claiming the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s past dam operations caused up to 90 percent of juvenile Coho salmon to be infected by a potentially deadly intestinal parasite in 2014 and 2015. Klamath River Coho salmon are listed as threatened in the federal Endangered Species Act.
Tribal fisheries scientists attributed the disease outbreaks to the low return of Klamath River in the 2017 season, which resulted in the commercial fishery being closed for the region and local tribes.
Bureau of Reclamation public affairs officer Erin Curtis said the Basin does not have enough water to provide for both irrigators and the dam releases without lowering water levels at Upper Klamath Lake. Water levels are required to be maintained at certain levels to protect endangered sucker fish populations.
“We are working daily with our partners to respond to this late onset hydrology season and develop our water management scenario,” Curtis wrote. “We are keenly aware that allocation decisions for the project are needed as soon as possible so that project irrigators can make business decisions. The lateness of the precip this year has made that more difficult and pushed our decisions back.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering taking 10,000 acre-feet of water from a wildlife refuge to provide to irrigators. Meanwhile, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon have filed a notice of intent to sue federal agencies for not maintaining water levels at Upper Klamath Lake.
The U.S. District Court in San Francisco is set to consider the irrigators’ arguments April 11.
The crux of the Basin irrigators’ challenge to the dam releases is whether the ramped-up flows are necessary this year. The irrigators argue 2017 saw significant rainfall that resulted in a “changed river.” They argue last year’s favorable conditions makes the need for the flow releases this year “unnecessary.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries program leader Nicholas Hetrick in Arcata said they have yet to see any clinical signs of disease in young outmigrating salmon on the river this year.
“But that is typical for this time of year and especially so given the relatively cool water temperatures experienced in the Klamath River over the past several weeks,” Hetrick wrote in an email to the Times-Standard.
Cordalis said hydrological conditions on the river this year equate to those seen in 2015 when 91 percent of sampled juvenile salmon on the river were found to be infected by the intestinal parasite Ceratanova shasta.
The federal court order requires the Bureau of Reclamation to store enough water to make flushing flows on the Klamath River and reserve an additional 50,000 acre-feet of water between April 1 and June 15 — or until 80 percent of the juvenile salmon migrate out of the river — in case the parasitic outbreak should resurface.
The flushing flows are meant to literally flush out worms that host the intestinal parasite, which had infected juvenile salmon in 2014 and 2015. The dilution flows would be released if 30 percent of the sampled juvenile Coho salmon are found to be infected.
Cordalis said the court order and the flow plan were based off the best available science from several entities including tribal and federal scientists.
“There is nothing in those memos and there is nothing in the current available science that presents that after one good year you don’t need flushing flows or dilution flows the following year,” she said.
The irrigators also argue in the court filing that making the dam releases are “counterproductive” and would likely increase the occurrence of infection by pushing the “infectious zone” downstream where adult spawners returning to the river will encounter it.
Karuk Tribe natural resources policy advocate Craig Tucker said this argument is “really speculative.”
“You don’t need a PhD to know that fish do need water and the more the better,” Tucker said. “Our fisheries are in a tailspin. The idea that we’re going to shortcome on what the courts have agreed the best available science demonstrates, it’s like they are out to get the fish. It’s irresponsible.”
Orcutt said these flow releases are only a short-term solutions, and that issues such as dam removal, water supply management, water quality issues in the Basin still must be addressed.
“It’s the hope someday we try to get to a discussion about resolving some of those longstanding issues,” he said.
2019 flow plans
The court-ordered dam release plan is ordered to remain in effect until the Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service finish their formal discussions on whether or not to alter its Klamath River flow plans. That consultation is not expected to be completed until 2019.
But given the conditions of this water year, the Klamath Water Users Association, Sunnyside Irrigation District, Pine Grove Irrigation District Klamath Irrigation District, Klamath Drainage District and a Tulelake farmer Ben DuVall argued in their court filing that waiting until June for water to be made available would be “too late.”
These same entities have also filed an appeal of the court-mandated flow plans in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, with the case currently in the mediation process.
The Basin parties claim dam releases would bankrupt family farms, wipe out real estate values, uproot children from their schools, and “send economic and psychological shockwaves throughout every sector that has been dependent on agriculture in the Klamath Project for over a century.”
Basin farmer Jason Flowers, 35, wrote in a statement to the court that water uncertainty and delays on receiving summer water have an immediate economic impact to his farm.
“If this uncertainty continues, or even increases, I question how long our family farm can continue to operate,” he wrote.
‘Might cause hardship’
U.S. District Judge William Orrick wrote in his initial February 2017 ruling regarding the dam releases that the irrigators “undeniably have genuine and important interests” and that the flow releases “might cause hardship” for them.
“However,” the ruling continues, “as plaintiffs point out, courts are not permitted to favor economic interests over potential harm to endangered species.”
The irrigators responded to this in its filing this month, stating that the dam releases would affect the culture of Klamath Basin family farms and ranches.
“The future of this country depends upon younger farmers being able to step in and become successful in the face of many difficult challenges,” Flowers wrote. “Without water certainty, the risks of farming are simply too great for the younger generations to be successful. Stability, succession, and our way of life will be lost.”