Court tosses Bush plan for Klamath water

Court tosses Bush plan for Klamath water

By Michael Milstein
October 19, 2005


A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out the Bush administration plan to deliver irrigation water to Klamath Basin farmers, saying it does not do enough for threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

The ruling probably will mean more water must be shifted from farmers to fish in the basin’s emotional tug of war over the precious resource.

“This clearly could be a worse picture for us than what we had in terms of water for irrigation,” said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a federal government strategy to phase in higher river flows for salmon over 10 years was arbitrary and capricious because it overlooked the immediate needs of the fish under the Endangered Species Act.

“It is not enough to provide water for the coho to survive in five years, if in the meantime, the population has been weakened or destroyed by inadequate water flows,” the appeals court, based in San Francisco, ruled.

The government plan pledged to provide the fish with all the water they need in the final two years of the 10-year span — 2010 and 2011. But the fish may not have enough water to complete their lifecycles in the meantime, the judges said.

“If that happens, all the water in the world in 2010 and 2011 will not protect the coho, for there will be none to protect,” they wrote.

They sent the case back to a district court to impose corrective measures, which could include more water for fish.

The case resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Oregon Natural Resources Council, Waterwatch of Oregon and other conservation groups. They argued that the government strategy left salmon to struggle in a low river while water flowed to farms.

The Klamath Basin entered the national spotlight in 2001 when irrigation water to farms was restricted during a severe drought so it would be available to salmon and endangered suckers in area lakes.

The Bush administration later routed more water for farms under a plan that promised eventually to increase water dedicated to fish. Government agencies argued it was their best judgement as to how to protect the fish in the face of scientific uncertainty over how much water they require.

But judges said the government did not fully explain how it would avoid harming fish in the early years of the plan.

Farmers said the ruling was evidence that the Endangered Species Act has gone too far and must be reformed. But tribes countered that it was evidence the act serves as a final line of defense for families and tribal cultures that depend on salmon.