The Impact of Klamath Tribes v United States Bureau of Reclamation, et al
Litigation has been filed that seeks a preliminary injunction to stop all Klamath Irrigation Project (Project) irrigation diversions immediately and hold the water in Upper Klamath Lake (UKL). If successful, this litigation would affect Klamath agriculture, fish and wildlife (including severe impacts to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge), the Klamath River, the Klamath Basin economy, local businesses, and the social fabric of the region. Our short-term goal is to increase awareness in our community regarding these potential impacts. Although community members cannot at this point directly affect the outcome of this litigation, we hope better inform others in our community about this this dire situation and begin dialogue between the diverse business and social interests in the Klamath Basin. Ultimately, we must all work together to reach long-term, permanent solutions to the critical water and environmental issues affecting our community.
Last year, as a result of an Endangered Species Act (ESA) lawsuit filed by Native American Tribes in California, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick ordered immediate steps to be taken by the Bureau of Reclamation intended to protect salmon in the Klamath River. Those steps included injunctive measures which resulted in approximately 100,000 AF (or more than 25% of the Project’s entire irrigation allocation) of water being withheld from the Project and instead sent downriver. This water is in addition to the water reserved for the river under the 2013 Project Operations Biological Opinion (BiOp) allocation formula, a formula which already allocates every drop of water between lake, river and the Klamath Project operations. BiOps are developed by federal fisheries agencies to ensure that federal actions (in this case, Project water deliveries) are not likely to adversely affect species listed under the ESA. Two species of ESA-listed suckers inhabit UKL, the Lost River, and the Upper Klamath River. Coho salmon, listed as “threatened” under the ESA, inhabit the Klamath River and certain tributaries in California.
Lucky for the Klamath Basin, 2017 was an unprecedented wet water year, where the Upper Basin (in Oregon) received 130% of normal snowpack. As such, there was enough water to implement the injunctive measures as well as full allocation to the Project. In contrast, 2018 was abnormally dry and mild. At the start of the irrigation season (April 1st ) snowpack was roughly 50% of normal. Due to the combined requirements of the injunction and the BioOp, no UKL water was available the Project in the month of April. A very limited amount was released to irrigators in May. Meaningful deliveries of water began on June 1st . The total allocation for the season (200,000 acre feet) will be roughly half of typical demand required to support Project farm and ranch requirements.
- On May 23rd , the Klamath Tribes filed a lawsuit under the ESA to protect suckers by requiring more water to be reserved in UKL. The hearing to review this new potential injunction is scheduled for July 20 in San Francisco. Presiding over this case is Judge Orrick, who ordered the downriver injunctive flows earlier this year. The proposed preliminary injunction would compel a complete mid-season (July) Klamath Project shutoff and very quickly lead to a serious local financial crisis.
- The ceasing of water deliveries from the Klamath River would also include Klamath Basin Refuges, which, despite tough years in the recent past, have at least had some water to work with. That will change if this injunction is successful.
- Water availability to irrigators and refuges would not be available until a new BiOp is in place, currently scheduled for the spring of 2020. That means as things stand today, the 2018 disaster would be followed by no water for Project farms or refuges in 2019 as well.
- Though all water diversions and all alleged environmental impacts from those diversions occur in Oregon, the plaintiffs filed their litigation in the Federal Court in San Francisco, before the same judge who granted the injunction earlier this year. A first order of business that local water users have requested is consideration for a change of venue for this case to be heard.
Summaries of potential key economic, environmental and societal impacts that we may see if the litigation succeeds are provided on the pages of this website. Also see who has filed friend of the court briefs in support of the defendants, the counties and the Modoc Tribe.