Water plan falls short, court rules

Water plan falls short, court rules

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
October 19, 2005


The federal government is not supplying enough water to the Klamath River to sustain the dwindling coho salmon, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday in a victory for conservationists and fishing interests in southern Oregon and northwestern California.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s irrigation plan from 2002 to 2010 will provide the coho with only 57 percent of the water it needs — based on the government’s figures — and fails to explain how the species will survive, said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The bureau controls water flows on the Klamath from its dams and reservoirs.

“The agency essentially asks that we take its word that the species will be protected if its plans are followed,” Judge Dorothy Nelson said in the 3-0 ruling. Rejecting that suggestion, the court told a federal judge in Oakland to order the government to take immediate steps to preserve the coho, which was declared a threatened species in 1997.

Federal agencies involved in the case declined immediate comment. The Bush administration, joined by Klamath Basin farmers who depend on irrigation water, argued to the court that the eight-year water plan was the best estimate of the coho’s survival needs in the face of scientific uncertainty and that a planned increase in flows in 2010-11 would help restore the fish.

But the court said the coho, which has a three-year life cycle, might be extinct by the time the flows picked up.

The effects of the ruling extend far beyond a single species, which has been depleted by logging, dams, grazing and irrigation diversions since the 1940s. The coho inhabits Klamath tributaries as far south as Humboldt County.

A government report has identified Bureau of Reclamation-directed low water flows as a prime reason for a major salmon kill on the Klamath in 2002 that decimated commercial stocks of chinook salmon in addition to the coho. To protect the endangered fish, which mingle with other species when they reach the Pacific, the government has severely restricted commercial ocean fishing this year as far south as Monterey.

“Our interest is in getting fish back to the Klamath River because we depend on it for our livelihood,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which is a plaintiff in the case. He said the ruling should lead to “a better and more balanced water plan.”

“It’s always been irrigators first,” said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, who represented environmental and fishing organizations challenging the Bush administration’s plan. “Fishing communities and tribal communities dependent on these fish … have been ignored.”

Increased flows for fish probably would come at the expense of irrigation water for farmers. Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer Robin Rivett, representing the Klamath Water Users Association and the Tulelake Irrigation District, said the court appears to have misunderstood the case.

“All the water that’s necessary for survival of the species will be provided” in the Bureau of Reclamation’s current plan, he said.

Rivett said he was confident that the government could provide a better explanation of its plan to U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong in Oakland and avoid a court-ordered increase in water supplies.

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