Irrigators Ask Judge to Cut Emergency Water for Klamath Salmon

Turkey vulture eats a dead salmon on the Klamath River | Photo: Linda Tanner/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A federal agency started releasing more water from a reservoir Saturday in an effort to avoid another massive die-off of Chinook salmon in the Klamath River, but now a pair of powerful agricultural interests has gone to court to stop the release.

Prompted by drought conditions on the lower Klamath River similar to those that caused a die-off of more than 70,000 salmon in 2002, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday that it would release additional water from the Trinity Lake reservoir into the lower Klamath River from Saturday through mid-September. The release was hailed by local tribes who depend on the salmon both economically and culturally.

Water in Trinity Lake is divided between the Klamath basin and large farms in the Central Valley. BuRec said on Friday that the releases wouldn't affect this year's deliveries to Central Valley farms. But on Monday afternoon, the Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority were in court seeking to block the releases anyway.

In 2002, a drought year, water diversions from the Klamath for use by farmers in the Upper Klamath Basin left the lower river too warm and unoxygenated for the river's chinook. The warm water aided the spread of a parasite, Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (Ich), which causes a disease in salmon with a 100 percent mortality rate. The resulting die-off in September 2002, and the piles of dead fish rotting along the river banks, caused national outrage.

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Anxious to avoid a repeat of the 2002 die-off, the the Hoopa Valley, Karuk, and Yurok tribes that live along the Klamath and its tributaries have been urging BuRec to release more water from Trinity Dam to help give the salmon a fighting chance. BuRec had decided in June not to release any additional water, but tribal representatives' lobbying of state and federal agencies in Sacramento last week apparently sparked a reversal of the June decision.

"We have determined that unprecedented conditions over the past few weeks in the lower Klamath River require us to take emergency measures to help reduce the potential for a large-scale fish die-off," said BuRec Regional Director David Murillo in a statement announcing the planned releases Friday. "This decision was made based on science and after consultation with Tribes, water and power users, federal and state fish regulatory agencies, and others."

The water releases would be staged to simulate varying natural flows. A large pulse of water was released from the dam Monday to help flush out stagnant pools below the dam.

But despite assurances that the release would not affect this year's water deliveries to Central Valley farms, Westlands and San Luis & Delta Mendota asked the U.S. District Court in Fresno Monday for a temporary injunction that would block further releases. Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill expects to rule on the request Thursday.

Neither of the irrigation districts asking for the injunction has commented to the press. However, the likely issue prompting the petition is the possibility that releasing water for the salmon might reduce deliveries to Central Valley farms in 2015, assuming the statewide drought continues.

We'll update this story when O'Neill issues his ruling.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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