GRANTS PASS — A federal judge has denied a request by agricultural water providers in California’s Central Valley to block emergency water releases to protect Klamath River salmon from the drought.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill in Fresno, California, on Wednesday rejected a request for a temporary restraining order sought by Westlands Water District and San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.
O’Neill found they were unlikely to win their lawsuit, which claims the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has no authority to release the water and should have done a more detailed evaluation of the environmental harms.
O’Neill added that the potential harm to salmon far outweighed the harm to farmers, who were far from certain to get any more water.
He made a similar ruling last year when the bureau released water for Klamath salmon.
Intense political and legal battles have gone on over dividing water between fish and farms in the Klamath Basin for decades.
The bureau started releasing water last Friday from a reservoir on the Trinity River that provides water to both the Sacramento and Klamath basins at the request of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes and Humboldt County.
The flows are to continue into late September to protect salmon in the lower Klamath River from a parasite known as Ich, short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, which infests the gills, smothering the fish. High levels of the parasite have been seen in fish since July, and the bulk of the fall chinook run is expected to move into the river soon.
“The most important thing is its good for fish,” said Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, which depends on the salmon for food and ceremonial uses. “It’s too many years we have had to worry about our fish, and we need to land on some long-term solutions that increase the health of the Klamath River.”
The water districts issued a statement saying, “At a time when record fallowing of agricultural land is on the rise, community wells are drying up, and more than 95 percent of the state is experiencing drought conditions, today’s decision is one more disappointment from achieving a reasonable balance for all Californians who depend upon a reliable water supply.”
In the 2001 drought, the bureau had to shut off water to a federal irrigation district straddling the Oregon-California border to leave water for threatened coho salmon in the Klamath. When the Bush administration restored irrigation in 2002, causing river flows to diminish, an estimated 60,000 adult salmon died in the lower river from parasites that spread best in low and warm water conditions.
In the 1960s, as much as 90 percent of the Trinity’s water was diverted to the Sacramento River for agriculture, but over time it became clear that fish were paying the price. In 2000, a plan was adopted splitting the water about half and half on average.