Feds tell irrigators Klamath salmon need more water

Feds tell irrigators Klamath salmon need more water

Ag Weekly (AP)
June 23, 2008


GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Federal fisheries biologists want more water in the Klamath River to keep coho salmon from heading closer to extinction.

After evaluating the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s latest plans for splitting water between irrigators and fish, the NOAA Fisheries Service said Friday more water is needed in the spring to flood rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon, a threatened species.

The latest review — ordered by a federal judge — is known as a draft biological opinion, and comes in a long-standing battle over how much water goes to farms and how much goes to salmon in the Klamath Basin. The final version is expected later this year.

During a drought in 2001, the federal government shut off irrigation to most farms in the Klamath Reclamation Project near Klamath Falls and Tulelake, Calif., to keep salmon alive. But the next year when the Bush administration restored water to farms, tens of thousands of adult salmon died in low warm water conditions.

The review does not say how much more water is needed, but Christine Karas of the Bureau of Reclamation said the agency felt confident they can work out an agreement that satisfies NOAA Fisheries.

It was not immediately clear whether the review would threaten a Klamath River restoration agreement between farmers, Indian tribes, conservation groups and salmon fishermen that calls for removing four Klamath River dams that block salmon migrations while providing more reliable irrigation for farmers and increased habitat restoration.

PacifiCorp, the utility that owns the dams, has not agreed to remove them, but talks continue with state and federal agencies over how that might be accomplished.

After a federal judge set minimum flows for salmon in the river, Bureau of Reclamation offered a plan that included lower flows, and under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries must make a finding whether that will harm the coho.

The draft review concluded that the Bureau of Reclamation flows set for wet and moderate water years would eventually lead to the extinction of the coho, because not enough water was being released in spring months to provide slow-moving areas along shorelines where juvenile fish could grow just before making their migration to the ocean.

Russ Strach, NOAA Fisheries assistant regional administrator for protected resources, said the agency was committed to seeing the Klamath restoration agreement succeed.

He added that the reason the review missed its statutory deadline by three months was they sent it out for three different peer reviews, to give it greater credibility.

He added that they did not say how much more water should be released because they want to work that out with Bureau of Reclamation, which has the best computer models.

Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, a conservation group, said it looked like the Bush administration was trying to “kick the can down the road,” so that the problems of resolving the Klamath water problems are left for the next administration to take over the White House.

Greg Addington of Klamath Water Users Association, which represents irrigators, said he was frustrated that the review did not lay out how much more water was needed for salmon.

Karas said they were surprised that NOAA Fisheries wanted them to do additional analysis on how the flows would affect the southern population of resident killer whales, which depends on chinook salmon from the Klamath River for food.

The bureau did better on how its actions would affect endangered Lost River suckers and shortnosed sucker in Upper Klamath Lake, the primary reservoir for the Klamath irrigation project. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found last April their irrigation plans would not jeopardize the fish.

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