A Southern Oregon tribe is accusing federal water managers of failing to keep Upper Klamath Lake full enough to ensure the continued survival of two endangered species of sucker fish that its people once depended on for subsistence.
The Klamath Tribes leveled their claim in a lawsuit filed late Wednesday federal district court against the Bureau of Reclamation.
Water quality in the lake is generally poor and that can be exacerbated in drought years like the one we’re in.
“The lake levels are very important for providing habitat — water quality refuge habitat — for adult fish,” said Klamath Tribes scientist Mark Buettner.
Buettner said while the current sucker population continues to reproduce, very few of those young fish make it past the first year of life. This means the population of surviving sucker fish is aging and it’s feared the reproductive capacity of the fish will eventually start to decline, making recovery even more difficult.
The lawsuit names the Bureau of Reclamation and two other federal agencies. The Bureau of Reclamation manages water in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California. It is responsible for meeting legal requirements for sucker in the lake, protected salmon downstream, as well as farmers who rely on irrigation water.
A spokesperson said the bureau has worked with the tribes to address their concerns, but cannot comment on ongoing litigation. In a news release, Scott White of the Klamath Water Users Association said the Klamath Tribes' lawsuit “could have devastating impacts” on the basin’s economy by further reducing the amount of water available for agriculture. White said the association plans to intervene on the lawsuit.
Reclamation manages water, in part, according to a document called a biological opinion. It’s designed to ensure that five species of threatened and endangered fish in the Klamath Basin do not go extinct.
But the suit alleges the biological opinion needs to be updated to protect the suckers.
“Those lake levels the bureau is using to determine how much water it can distribute is not adequately protecting the species and they’re having an adverse effect on the species’ critical habitat,” said senior Klamath Tribes counsel Douglas MacCourt.
The tribes want new water level standards to be implemented immediately while protective measures for suckers in the biological opinion are updated, an ongoing process that is expected to take several years.
Recently, the bureau has been working to satisfy a court order to put more water in the Klamath River for salmon. This has delayed the start of irrigation season in the Klamath Basin, possibly until mid-June.
Farmers were able to get some water last month in a swap with a local utility. But this week the Klamath Water Users Association said the flows have stopped, and blamed the Bureau for “operational decisions” that are preventing basin farmers from getting water.