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Fishermen And Tribe Seek A Court Order To Restore Klamath Water For Fish

Becky Bacon
U.S. Forest Service
The Klamath River near Orleans, CA, in fall.

An extremely dry summer forecast is once again pitting water users on the Klamath River against one another.

Coastal fishermen and California’s Yurok Tribe will face the Bureau of Reclamation in court on Friday. They’re seeking an order to restore water on the Klamath for critical salmon habitat.

This year’s low river levels are creating warm conditions resulting in the spread of C. shasta, a parasite that infects the river’s Chinook salmon population. Recent fish surveys showed 98% of the Klamath Chinook have the disease, says Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Association.

“We’re talking about the potential loss of an entire year-class of an entire river system, in what was once the third most productive salmon river in the continental U.S.,” Spain says. “That’s a disaster.”

Spain’s group, along with the Yurok Tribe and Institute for Fisheries Resources, are seeking an emergency temporary restraining order to keep water at previously-agreed-upon levels in the river, before drought conditions caused the Bureau of Reclamation to revise their allocation for non-agricultural users.

Spain says the disease infection could translate to around 90% mortality for this year’s generation of Chinook. Increasing the water flow downriver will lower the temperature and increase fish habitat, discouraging the spread of C. shasta.

“The only lever we have to remedy that disease outbreak is to put more cold water down the river,” Spain says.

But with limited water this year, an increased demand is also coming from irrigators who rely on the federal Klamath Project, which supplies water to farmers from the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake. That prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to revise a recent settlement over water allocation, reducing the planned flow in the river.

“It’s so dry, we just simply don’t have the anticipated volume of water to work with,” says Jeff Nettleton, Klamath Basin manager with the Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s looking like this year will be the second or driest year in the last 30 to 40 years for the basin.”

The Klamath Water Users Association, which represents irrigators dependent on the Klamath Project, have filed their own legal action in support of the Bureau.

In a statement Tuesday evening, KWUA President Tricia Hill said: “The last thing we need is even less water for the Project. Our situation is beyond dire already.”

According to Spain, fisheries groups and the tribe hope a favorable court ruling on the temporary restraining order will preserve the recent water settlement long enough to keep the current Chinook population alive and make way for a permanent court ruling on the water allocation.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.