Feds give OK to new plan for Klamath water

Irrigators voice their satisfaction with the findings, but Hoopa Valley Tribe says plan won't leave enough water for region's fish

GRANTS PASS — A new plan for balancing scarce water in the Klamath Basin between fish and farms won't harm salmon or other fish protected by the Endangered Species Act, federal scientists said Monday.

The NOAA Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued what is called a biological opinion for operations on the Klamath Project, a federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border. It covers the effects of the irrigation project's operations on shortnosed suckers and Lost River suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and other reservoirs, as well as coho salmon, green sturgeon and eulachon in the Klamath River.

The evaluation represents a "landmark" level of coordination between the federal agencies, as well as integration of the needs of the different fish species, with an eye toward trying to keep the irrigation project supplied with water, said Laurie Sada, field supervisor for the Klamath office of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Water levels in lakes for suckers and releases down the Klamath River for salmon are tied to natural events, such as rain and snowmelt. That allows for storing more water in the winter, and provides that winter flows will not be static, said Irma Lagomarsino, supervisor for the NOAA fisheries northern California office.

"In general, it's a huge departure from the past water management system," she said. "It is one that provides more certainty in terms of water for the (farmers). It provides a block of water for the river. And it provides lake levels to help protect endangered suckers."

The Bureau of Reclamation said this new plan gives them far more flexibility than they had in 2001, when they had to shut off irrigation to farms to maintain water for fish.

"In the past, volume and distribution of water for coho salmon, the Klamath Project and suckers were not coordinated," said Jason Phillips, Klamath Area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. "We factored into our analysis when the coho are needing water and when farmers are likely to take water and when suckers need habitat."

Phillips said low snowpack in the mountains and little rain this spring left them with less water than in 2010, when they had to start irrigation late because of a lack of water. But the new plan, implemented before it gained formal approval, allowed them to start water deliveries on time in the spring.

Irrigators said they were unhappy there was not enough water this year but happy the new plan is in place to deal with the shortage.

"It gives us an ability, in the future, to manage a block of water and know what our supply is at the beginning of a season," Greg Addington, director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents project farmers, said in an email. "Up until now, we have never had that luxury. We like the coordinated approach, which is unique."

The Hoopa Valley Tribe is not satisfied.

Spokeswoman Regina Chichizola said the agencies failed to use the best available science, and the plan gives more water to farmers at the expense of salmon.

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