Water Plan for Klamath Is Rejected

Water Plan for Klamath Is Rejected

By Eric Bailey
Los Angeles Times
October 19, 2005


SACRAMENTO — In a rebuke to the Bush administration on a key environmental battleground, a U.S. appellate court threw out the last vestiges of a federal plan for the Klamath River out of fears it diverted so much water to farms that endangered coho salmon could teeter toward extinction.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the president’s water plan failed to provide adequate water flows in the river until the final two years of the 10-year plan.

If that happened, wrote Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, “all the water in the world” would fail to protect the fish, “for there will be none to protect.”

The court order effectively means the federal agency that oversees water distribution in the West, the Bureau of Reclamation, must come up with a new plan to better divvy up river flows between farmers and the endangered fish.

Environmentalists, Indian tribes and commercial fishermen — who have claimed $100 million in losses because of the Klamath’s dwindling coho population — expressed delight over the ruling, which comes after a three-year legal fight.

“This will give us a better water plan, one that doesn’t defer for eight years the relief that is needed immediately,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns.

But farmers in the Klamath Basin, a fertile agricultural region straddling the border of Oregon and California, expressed concern that the ruling could spawn anew the sort of contentiousness that prompted protests and civil disobedience in the region in 2001.

“This just starts the worrying process all over again,” said Donnie Boyd, a John Deere tractor dealer in the basin.

“Everyone’s livelihood is hanging on a very thin thread.”

The 9th Circuit ruling sends the case back to a district judge with orders to give more water to the fish and less to the farmers.

The soonest any new water plan could take effect is for next year’s irrigation season.

But that process could be delayed further if federal officials appeal.

“I don’t know where we’re going to go from here,” said Jeffrey McCracken, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman. “We’re having one of our legal guys take a look and let us know what our next step is.”

The Klamath was once the nation’s third-mightiest salmon-producing river, with an annual run of coho approaching 125,000 in the 1950s.

By the mid-1990s, when the coho were declared endangered, fewer than 6,000 of the prized salmon were returning each year.

Citing the three-year lifecycle of the salmon, Nelson wrote in her 24-page opinion that urgency is needed.

“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,” she wrote.

The roots of the dispute stretch back to 2001, when a drought prompted federal regulators for a time to cut off irrigation water to Klamath Basin farmers, making the basin a flashpoint for debate over the Endangered Species Act.

A few residents took matters into their own hands, repeatedly defying federal authorities by opening irrigation canal gates to let water pour into fields.

By 2002 the Bush administration had a new plan in place that ensured irrigation water for agriculture, but prompted protests from environmentalists worried about the fish.


The warnings soon proved prescient. In the spring of 2002, thousands of juvenile salmon were killed by low water flows. That fall, as many as 80,000 adult salmon heading up river to spawn instead succumbed to a disease California Fish and Game biologists blamed on low river flows.

A coalition of commercial fishermen and conservation groups joined with the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes to sue the federal government.

They argued that the government’s 10-year water-allocation plan failed during the first eight years to provide enough water to ensure survival of the salmon, citing studies commissioned by the federal government prior to Bush becoming president.

“Bush administration officials swept science under the rug, and the court caught them,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, one of the groups fighting the government.

Boosters of the Klamath water plan, meanwhile, said the science was far from certain and cited a National Academy of Sciences study that suggested river flows were only one of several critical factors that could affect salmon survival.

“There’s no factual and scientific justification for the conclusion that flows in the early years jeopardize the coho,” said Greg Addington, executive director of Klamath Water Users Assn., which represents farmers in the basin.

“We had a reasonable balance, and this basically throws that out.”

Addington said the decision underscores the need for Congress to press ahead with an effort being led by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) to rewrite the Endangered Species Act.

Good riddance to the rejected plan, said Spain, the fishermen’s representative.

“This is the water plan that gave us the worst fish kill in Western U.S. history and has driven much of the fishing industry out of business this year,” Spain said.

“We’ll be paying for this for years to come.”