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Oregon Wild sues to secure Rogue water for coho salmon

A conservation group filed suit Tuesday to force the federal government to operate irrigation canals and reservoirs in the Upper Rogue River basin in ways that will ensure enough water is available for threatened wild coho salmon.

The Portland-based group Oregon Wild wants the federal Bureau of Reclamation to alter Emigrant Lake water releases, as well as water diversions in the Little Butte Creek basin, to meet draft minimum flow levels in various tributary streams as outlined by federal fish managers but not adopted for use here.

The group also is suing the bureau for failing to properly consult with NOAA-Fisheries to create and adopt a so-called "biological opinion" on how the agency's activities in the basin will protect wild coho, which were listed as threatened in Southern Oregon and Northern California in 1997.

Bureau officials have promised to fulfill this requirement under the federal Endangered Species Act for nearly a decade, but the agency has failed to do so, said Steve Pedery, Oregon Wild's conservation director.

The suit asks a judge to set a formal date for the bureau to adopt that biological opinion and seeks to bind the bureau from storing or diverting any water from Hyatt and Howard Prairie lakes and elsewhere in the upper Rogue basin until the opinion is completed and adopted.

Oregon Wild has been at loggerheads with the bureau over protecting wild Rogue coho since 2003, when bureau biologists concluded its operations in the South Fork of Little Butte Creek likely harmed coho.

The group filed suit in 2009 over the issue, and a settlement with the agency required it to complete its biological opinion by March 2010. That date passed without the document being completed.

"The bottom line is, we're here today because the Bureau of Reclamation has refused to do its job," Pedery said. "The bureau sees itself as a water-delivery (agency) and not one doing projects for salmon.

"This is probably the most egregious example of a federal agency refusing to do its job," Pedery said Tuesday.

Venetia Gempler, a Bureau of Reclamation public affairs officer in Boise, Idaho, said in an email to the Mail Tribune that agency leaders were disappointed by the lawsuit.

Bureau officials understand Oregon Wild's concerns with the lengthy consultation process, Gempler said, adding that officials hope the suit will not disrupt what she called "considerable progress" in getting the necessary documents completed.

"We share the same goal of finding a sustainable Rogue River Project operation that works for fish, farms and communities," Gempler said.

The suit does not include operations at Lost Creek and Applegate lakes, which are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At issue is how the bureau moves and stores water for the Talent Irrigation District and others across various basin divides and into the upper Bear Creek basin's Emigrant Lake.

The agency cuts releases from the lake into Emigrant Creek in the fall after the irrigation season and just as wild coho migrate for spawning in these tributaries.

Oregon Wild's suit contends these low flows harm spawning capabilities and fail to protect young wild coho during their roughly 14 months in freshwater habitat before they migrate to the ocean.

The government's long-awaited draft recovery plan for wild coho in Southern Oregon and Northern California lists coho in the upper Rogue basin, including Bear Creek, as facing a moderate risk of extinction, with suitable rearing habitat for juveniles the main obstacle.

The opinion states that dams and diversions in the upper Rogue basin represent an overall "high" threat to coho. That threat level, however, is less than roads, agricultural practices, urbanization and diking, the draft states.

That draft plan is now out for public comment. NOAA-Fisheries biologists will be in White City on Wednesday, Feb. 15, for a public hearing on the draft and to take comments. That meeting will run from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Jackson County Parks Auditorium, 7520 Table Rock Road.

A similar meeting is planned for 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14, in Yreka, Calif., at the Yreka Community Center.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.