A federal judge on Wednesday denied a request by irrigation suppliers in California's Central Valley to stop emergency water releases ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that are intended to prevent another fish kill on the Klamath River.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill in Fresno denied the temporary injunction sought by Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. Westlands is the nation's largest supplier of water for agricultural use.
"The Court finds that, although Reclamation has not presented an entirely consistent approach to determining the need for FARs, the circumstances justify the planned 2014 FARs as a measure needed to prevent a fish kill that could significantly impact this year's fall-run Chinook in the lower Klamath," he wrote.
O'Neill noted that the request came as he comes close to a ruling on similar challenges to the 2013 Flow Augmentation Releases, or FARs.
"The Court concludes that, even though Plaintiffs are likely to (and in all likelihood soon will) succeed on the merits of at least one of their claims against Reclamation in connection with the 2013 FARs, the balance of the harms does not warrant an injunction at this time," O'Neill wrote. "Even if the Court were prepared immediately to issue a final ruling on the merits in favor of Plaintiffs, an injunction would not be automatic. The potential harm to the Plaintiffs from the potential, but far from certain, loss of added water supply in 2015 does not outweigh the potentially catastrophic damage that 'more likely than not' will occur to this year's salmon runs in the absence of the 2014 FARs."
Dan O'Hanlon, attorney for the irrigation suppliers, did not immediately respond to a telephone call and email seeking comment. The bureau routinely refuses to comment on pending litigation.
At issue is water in a Trinity River reservoir, which has long been shared with farmers in the Central Valley. The river is the main tributary of the Klamath River, where sharing scarce water between fish and farms has long been a tough balancing act marked by lawsuits and political battles.
For local tribes that have been fighting for years to keep river flows at healthy levels for fish, Hoopa Tribe Fisheries Department Director Mike Orcutt said Wednesday's ruling was another step forward.
"The good news for fish is that the courts didn't find enough evidence or supporting evidence to halt the flows that started on Saturday," he said.
Orcutt added that evidence of health concerns for fish, including blue-green algae, stress to fish and movement of fish entering the lower Klamath River, proved the need for water to continue to be released into the Trinity River.
"The outcome that we were trying to prevent is a fish kill on the lower Klamath, like what happened in 2002," Orcutt said. "It would have been devastating if the courts would have halted the flows."
The Bureau of Reclamation ordered the emergency releases last week. The agency has said the salmon releases were not expected to reduce the amount of water exported to the Sacramento River this year, but would likely mean less water stored for next year.
Tribes that depend on the salmon for subsistence, ceremonial and commercial fisheries had pressed the bureau to reverse an earlier decision to only release more water once significant numbers of fish began to die.
"The court again recognized the scientific basis for the supplemental releases, and the best decision was made for the resource and the fishery," said Susan Masten, vice chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe, in a release. "Klamath (Basin) water is meant to support Klamath River fish, not industrial agriculture in the Central Valley."
In his ruling, O'Neill cited a statement from tribal fisheries consultant Joshua Strange that the extra water was needed to prevent an outbreak of disease from a parasite known as Ich, short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, that attacks fish crowded together in drought conditions. The parasite was the prime killer of salmon in the 2002 drought.
O'Neill noted that the fish expert for the irrigation suppliers, Charles Hanson, asserted that higher, colder flows in the Trinity would harm other protected species, such as the Western pond turtle, yellow-legged frog and lamprey.
Staff writer Juniper Rose contributed to this report.
Redding.com story below
Indian tribes rally to support salmon
LEWISTON, California - More than 200 members of North State American Indian tribes and their supporters gathered near Lewiston Dam on Wednesday to rally for the fish they say are at the center of their cultures.
“This brings all the water warriors together to show them we have a united front,” said Danielle Vigil-Masten, chairwoman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.
The Hoopa were joined by members of the Yurok, Karuk, Winnemum Wintu and Nor Rel Muk tribes at the Trinity River Fish Hatchery near the dam. Members at a barbecue lunch and listened to traditional songs and watched tribal dancing.
Vigil-Masten said they were celebrating a decision made last week to send more water out of Lewiston Dam and down the Trinity River, a tributary to the Klamath River, where tribes and others were worried about low water levels causing a die-off among spawning salmon.
“We were bracing for another catastrophic die-off,” said Trinity County Supervisor Debra Chapman, who attended Wednesday’s rally.
In 2002 more than 30,500 fish died in the lower Klamath River under similar low, warm water conditions.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed last week to send pulse flows of water down the river to prevent an outbreak of fish disease. But on Monday two San Joaquin Valley agricultural water agencies, the Westlands Water District and the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, sued the agency to stop the higher flows.
The two agencies argued the bureau did not have the authority to increase water flows, and that sending more water downstream would further harm agricultural communities in the San Joaquin Valley that are already suffering from the effects of the drought.
A little more than half the water in Trinity Lake is piped over the mountains to Whiskeytown Lake and eventually ends up in the Sacramento River, which flows through the San Joaquin Delta on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
But a federal judge on Wednesday denied the agencies’ request. It was the second year in a row a judge had ruled against the water agencies.
Vigil-Masten said the high water flows were due to a recent visit to the North State from Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel. Members of her tribe held a small rally in Redding when Jewell visited Redding on Aug. 12. Two days after Jewell’s visit, members of her staff visited her tribe and traveled out to the Klamath River, where they were shown fish dying in the water, Vigil-Masten said.
The following week, the bureau agreed to increase water levels in the river, she said.
Earlier this week, dam releases were scheduled to be more than 2,000 cubic-feet second. On Wednesday, the flow was at 950 cfs. The pulse flows are to continue until at least Sept. 14.