The U.S. government is challenging an order from Oregon water regulators that forbids water releases from Upper Klamath Lake to boost flows in the Klamath River.
The legal dispute pits the enforcement of state water rights against the federal government’s obligation to operate the Klamath irrigation project in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
To improve stream conditions for threatened salmon in the Klamath river, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation releases water through its Link River Dam under an operations plan for the irrigation project.
In April, the Oregon Water Resources Department issued an order prohibiting the bureau from making releases that would drain water from Upper Klamath Lake to which irrigators hold water rights.
Since then, the water resources department has twice issued notices of violation to the federal government for releasing water contrary to the order. The federal government said officials from the state agency have also threatened to impose civil penalties or take other enforcement actions.
The U.S. government is now seeking a declaration in federal court that the state lacks the authority to stop water releases from Upper Klamath Lake, as well as an injunction against the state agency’s enforcement of the order.
Aside from preventing the Bureau of Reclamation from operating its facility consistently with the Endangered Species Act, the state agency’s order would interfere with the water rights of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes downriver in California, the federal government stated.
Under legal precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal government must conform with state water law — however, state water law “must cede to federal authority” when it conflicts with federal statutes, such as the Endangered Species Act, according to the federal government.
Representatives of the Oregon Water Resources Department could not be reached for comment.