Oregon tribe opposes water release for farmers

PORTLAND, Ore. – A Native American tribe in Oregon said Tuesday it was reviewing its legal options after learning the U.S. government plans to release water from a state-operated reservoir to downstream farmers along the Oregon-California border amid a historic drought .

Even limited irrigation for the farmers who use the Klamath River’s water for about 300 square miles of crops puts two endangered fish species at risk because water abstraction occurs at the peak of spawning season, the Klamath Tribes said. This summer’s water allocation plan, released by the Bureau of Reclamation last week, will send about 50,000 acre-feet of water to farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project — less than 15% of what they would receive in a normal year.

An acre foot is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with water 30 cm deep.

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It is the third year in a row that the farmers, fish and tribes who depend on the 257-mile Klamath River, in a region where even in a good year there is not enough water to meet competing demands, are affected by extreme drought. Last year, no water flowed through the Klamath reclamation project’s main irrigation canal at all, and the water crisis briefly became a political flashpoint for anti-government activists.

At the same time, endangered sucker fish, central to the culture and religion of the Klamath tribes, did not have enough water to spawn, and thousands of downstream juvenile salmon died without releasing reservoirs to keep the Klamath River healthy to support.

The Klamath tribes said in a statement that the decision to give away water to about 1,000 farmers as part of the massive federal farm project was “perhaps the saddest chapter yet in a long history of breaches,” and blamed them for the current water crisis “120 Years of ecosystem mismanagement by settler society.”

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Inland tribes based in Chiloquin, Oregon include the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin peoples of southern Oregon and northern California. The Klamath have struggled, with limited success, to keep enough water in the reservoir and surrounding rivers for two distinct species of sucker fish to survive and reproduce.

The fish is important to the tribes’ cultural and religious practices and was once a staple food. The Klamath stopped fishing for the suckerfish in the 1980s when numbers were declining. The Klamath tribes now operate a captive breeding program to ensure the species’ survival and note that no young sucker fish have survived in the wild in recent years.

“We have nothing left to ‘compromise’ with,” the Klamath tribes said in a statement. “Global warming is certainly a global problem, but so far its local consequences seem to exacerbate existing and systematic inequalities between us and society at large.”

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A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation declined to comment Tuesday, citing the possibility of litigation.

The Klamath tribes believe this year’s plan violates a biological assessment under the Endangered Species Act, which says the bureau must keep the reservoir, called Upper Klamath Lake, at a minimum depth for the sucker fish. The Opinion recognizes that in some cases – like this year – it may be impossible to maintain even this minimum depth, but in these cases the Bureau must do everything possible to comply.

“We feel that Reclamation has backed us into a corner by making this allocation decision that so directly contradicts the requirements of the Endangered Species Act,” said Jay Weiner, a water rights attorney representing The Klamath Tribes. “That they take additional water…is an existential risk to the species that the tribes cannot live with.”

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Federal authorities also released a three-day tide of water from the Klamath River reservoir last weekend to bolster the health of Northern California’s salmon populations, which have been decimated by a parasite that thrives in slow-moving, warm water.

The amount was half what would be released in a normal year, and the Yurok tribe, who are trying to keep salmon populations afloat, said they were also deeply disappointed with the water allocation this season.

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Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus

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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/04/19/oregon-tribe-opposes-water-release-for-farmers/ Oregon tribe opposes water release for farmers

Jaclyn Diaz

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