GRANTS PASS — Two conservation groups warned federal agencies Thursday they plan to sue to get more water devoted to protected salmon in the Klamath River.
Oregon Wild and WaterWatch of Oregon filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue.
They object to a new water management plan for a federal irrigation project that straddles the Oregon-California border south of Klamath Falls, saying they are afraid it will produce a repeat of 2002 conditions that saw tens of thousands of adult salmon die.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation implemented a new plan governing how much water goes to farms and how much to fish before NOAA Fisheries Service finished reviewing it for potential harm to threatened salmon. At the time, the agencies said they had cooperated closely in developing the plan, which was based on the latest scientific information, and it was better to start the irrigation season with the new plan, than change it later. NOAA Fisheries is scheduled to finish the Endangered Species Act review later this month.
The Bureau of Reclamation and the NOAA Fisheries Service both said they could not comment on the notice of intent to sue.
The notice said the new plan is providing less water for salmon in March than the old plan, which was approved under terms of the Endangered Species Act. That means less rearing habitat for young salmon.
"It seems like any opportunity to break the law to give more water to farmers, (the bureau) will take it," said Steve Pedery, Oregon Wild's conservation director. "The ultimate legal issue will be that, while scientific cooperation is wonderful, what scientific basis do they have for saying these flows are OK for salmon, when they are lower? There is this black box they operate in, and they are not accountable to the public."
He added that the bureau is delaying the start of irrigation season because it drew down Upper Klamath Lake too much last year to provide irrigation, and has been shorting the river ever since to make up for it.
A big return of Chinook salmon is predicted for late summer. That sets the stage for a repeat of 2002, when tens of thousands of adult salmon were stranded in low and warm pools and died of disease, Pedery said.