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Despite Worries Over Fish And Farms, Judge Says Klamath Water Allocation Won’t Change For Now

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

Water users from all sides of the overallocated Klamath Basin are bracing for an exceptionally low water year. But after a judge’s ruling on Friday there won’t be any immediate changes to who gets to use that water.

Klamath area farmers and ranchers say they need more water for irrigation. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations and the Yurok and Klamath Tribes are worried about river and lake levels for critical habitat of sucker fish and salmon.

The Bureau of Reclamation recently reduced how much water will be released for fish habitat. Those reductions are putting Klamath River chinook salmon at risk of disappearing from the river because of a warm-water parasite called C. shasta that’s killing the fish. Recent fish surveys showed 98% of the Klamath chinook were found to have the parasite.

On Friday U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick denied a request by the tribes and fishermen’s group to reactivate a lawsuit that would force the bureau to release more water. In a March agreement the agency agreed to do that. Then in early May they revised their allocation saying drought conditions mean there’s not enough water to go around.

Ranchers and farmers in Klamath County are also worried about what’s projected to be the lowest water year in decades. On Friday, they’ll be holding a tractor convoy to protest what they say are priorities benefiting fish rather than farmers. The event harkens back to a past standoff between water-users known as the “Bucket Brigade” nearly 20 years ago.

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.