A federal judge has denied a request by Klamath Basin farmers to get their irrigation season underway. The farmers had asked for a reversal of an earlier court decision requiring water be held back for salmon until mid-June.
District Court ruled in 2017 that federal managers must keep a block of water in Upper Klamath Lake in case disease rates in Klamath River salmon got too high. The thinking was that a well-timed release downstream could flush out or dilute the responsible parasite enough to spare the struggling fish.
The judge said the water should continue to be banked each year until revisions to the plan to manage Klamath coho salmon could be completed. The fish are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The consequence of this ruling for many farmers in the basin was a delay to the start of irrigation season – the point at which the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation begins releasing water into irrigation canals. Early water is important to the Basin’s onion and garlic farmers.
Anticipating these delays and a tight water year in 2018, irrigators asked for an injunction on the ruling this winter. They argued the salmon disease rates that triggered the original decision weren’t actually as high as initially reported.
In the opinion, the District Judge William Orrick said the nature of these new arguments require the intervention of a higher court, where the irrigators also filed an appeal of the original decision.
“I do not have jurisdiction to grant their requested stay while the appeal is pending,” Judge Orrick wrote. “Nor would I in light of the evidence of record.”
With this decision, and barring huge rainfalls, irrigation will be delayed again this year.
“Depending on what goes into the lake, we may be able to start earlier. Maybe June 1. Maybe other options will come up to get our early irrigators working,” said Reclamation public affairs specialist Laura Williams.
Daniel Cordalis is a consultant with the Yurok Tribe, one of the original plaintiffs that pushed for salmon protections.
“This feels like it was one of the final attempts to make a big change for this year. It feels like what we’re doing is how we’re going to live for the next, what, six weeks? Until this injunction for this year runs through its course,” he said.
Klamath Basin famers have been getting a relatively small amount of water through a lending-scheme with the utility that operates the dams on the Klamath River. Water has been flowing into the main irrigation canal this week.
Oregon’s governor declared a drought for Klamath County earlier this year.