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Tribe, salmon win in fight over Upper Klamath Lake water

Because the federal government must follow its own laws — in this case, the Endangered Species Act — it isn't obligated to comply with Oregon's order to stop releasing water from the Upper Klamath Lake.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Chalk up a victory for the Endangered Species Act, the Yurok Tribe, and the salmon fisheries of the California coast. And, of course, the Coho and Chinook salmon upon which the tribe and the fisheries depend.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III issued a summary ruling in favor of the United States and a collection of fishing advocates and the tribe on Monday in a complex suit involving several tribal, governmental and quasi-governmental agencies in a complicated network of cross-claims from both California and Oregon.

“It’s complicated,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Patti Goldman with the environmental law firm Earthjustice. “And in a way it’s not complicated.”

First filed in 2019, the case ultimately came down to one issue: Must the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation comply with an order from the Oregon Water Resources Department blocking it from releasing water from the Upper Klamath Lake? Orrick ruled the answer is no and granted summary judgement in favor of the United States and the plaintiffs which in addition to the Yurok Tribe included the Institute for Fisheries Resources, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Since the bureau must comply with the Endangered Species Act, so too must Oregon's water agency. Another party in the Gordian knot of claims and counterclaims also lost out: the Klamath Water Users Association, an organization representing farmers and ranchers, as well as suburban and rural water districts. Their counterclaim that the Endangered Species Act didn’t require Reclamation to alter its management of the lake water to benefit endangered species was also denied.

The Klamath River basin, which is home to about 114,000 people in an area the size of Belgium, has been managed under the Klamath Project, a river management program developed by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1907 to supply agriculture with a steady supply of irrigation water. Over the ensuing 60 years, a long network of canals and several dams were built to control the river. The project, however, had a devastating impact on populations of Chinook and Coho salmon, which the Yurok Tribe depend upon for food and which are the foundation of their culture.

The dams, while helping with irrigation as well as hydroelectric power, altered the historic river flow and raised water temperatures, which proved deadly to salmon migration. But after years of negotiation, power company PacifiCorp agreed to dismantle the dams in 2016 and deconstruction of all four dams is scheduled to take place throughout 2023 and 2024.

Over the years, disputes over the Klamath — in an increasingly arid region plagued by drought — have launched numerous lawsuits. This was not Orrick’s first venture into water issues along the Klamath.

In 2017, he issued a preliminary injunction requiring the bureau to redirect water earmarked for farms and ranches to help stop a salmon die-off on the Klamath River after deadly C. shasta infections of juvenile Coho salmon climbed to 91%. That injunction expired after the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a new biological opinion in 2019 with recommendations and minimum requirements for protecting endangered Coho salmon.

The Yurok Tribe challenged that opinion in a lawsuit filed in July 2019 before reaching the interim deal with the federal agencies and agreeing to stay the litigation.

In 2018, Orrick refused to divert water for endangered sucker fish in a separate lawsuit brought by the Klamath Tribes.

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