SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Monday refused to dissolve an injunction that forces the federal government to use water previously earmarked for commercial interests to help save endangered salmon on the California-Oregon border.
An industry group of ranchers and farmers, joined by four irrigation districts, sought to reverse an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge William Orrick III in March 2017. The injunction requires the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to divert Klamath River water, some allocated for farms and ranches, to flush out parasite-hosting worms that cause deadly infections in threatened juvenile salmon.
The Klamath River Water Users Association argued that salmon infection rates used to justify the injunction were overstated and that diverting water for salmon would have “a crippling effect” on the local economy and cause “great hardship” for family farms and ranches.
But Orrick rejected those arguments, finding the industry group used a method to calculate infection rates that was inconsistent with a 2013 biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Using a weighted-by-abundance method, the Klamath River Water Users argued infection rates in 2014 and 2015 were actually 18 and 29 percent, much lower than the 81 and 91 percent rates previously presented.
Orrick branded those revised infection rates as “newly developed” rather than “newly discovered evidence” that could not be used to justify dissolving the injunction.
“Because I cannot find that the best available science shows that the actual [prevalence of infection] rates in 2014 and 2015 were lower than the incidental take trigger, I do not find sufficient grounds to justify suspension or modification of the injunctions,” Orrick wrote in his 15-page ruling.
Orrick previously ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service were required to reevaluate the project once infection rates climbed higher than 49 percent in 2014.
Orrick noted that while he is sympathetic to the plight of farmers and ranchers, the law requires him to prioritize potential harm to an endangered species over economic interests.
The judge also denied the federal government’s request to eliminate one part of the injunction that requires it to reserve 50,000 acre-feet of water for emergency dilution flows.
Orrick clarified that even if the bureau is unable to reserve the full 50,000 acre-feet of water, it must still reserve as much water as possible and attempt to fully comply with the injunction or face potential penalties for contempt of court.
The injunction was issued last year at the request of two Native American tribes, who accused the Bureau of Reclamation of improperly managing the Klamath River Project and allowing a deadly parasite called C. shasta to infect 91 percent of juvenile Coho salmon in 2015.
Hoopa Valley Tribe lawyer Thomas Schlosser, of Seattle, said his client is “very pleased” with the court’s ruling. He said the injunction is still needed to protect juvenile salmon, which can’t make it to the ocean and return for spawning if they die from infections in Klamath waterways due to low water levels.
“The biological opinion makes clear that the reason the project affects salmon is because it promoted a fish disease of juvenile fish,” Schlosser said.
As part of the injunction, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service are in the process of developing a new biological opinion, which will specify how the Klamath River Project must be managed to protect endangered species. The new biological opinion is expected to be completed by 2020, according to Schlosser.
A project to tear down four dams on the Klamath River and help restore devastated populations of endangered salmon and steelhead is also expected to start in 2020.
Scott White, director of the Klamath River Water Users Association, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.