A federal judge in San Francisco earlier today sided with local water users and the federal government, preventing even more of the Klamath Project’s stored water being sent downstream immediately in this critically dry year.
After a hearing this morning, Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied an emergency motion filed by the Yurok Tribe and environmental groups last week. The Tribe had asked the Court to re-open a case filed under the Endangered Species Act in the Northern District in July 2019, and issue a temporary restraining order. The requested restraining order would have required the Bureau of Reclamation to release an additional 390 cubic feet per second in releases for flows in the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam for what would amount to approximately 20 days and a total of 16,000 acre-feet.
“That amount of the increase that was requested is more than twice the amount that is currently flowing through the Klamath Project’s A Canal,” said Tricia Hill, President of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA).
As a result of the ruling, the case will not be re-opened. The Court also did not believe the temporary restraining order would have been justified, but there will be no formal ruling on that issue.
“It’s the right decision and a big relief, although this consumed time and money for litigation that could have been better spent,” said Paul Simmons, Executive Director of the KWUA.
Mr. Simmons emphasized that Klamath Project water users still face a severe shortage.
“The April 1 allocation of 140,000 acre-feet, was less than 40 percent of what is needed,” he said. “Although there have been no formal announcements, it appears that allocation has gone down very considerably. Even the best-case numbers still represent a disaster for the Klamath Project as a whole.”
The parties agreed to stay the case in March 2020 after Reclamation agreed to an Interim Operating Plan for the Klamath Project to be applicable until September 2022. The Interim Plan provided an additional 40,000 acre-feet of water for flow “augmentation” above current biological opinion requirements under specific conditions. Subsequent to the augmentation trigger date, projections for inflow into Upper Klamath Lake fell dramatically.
Following a recent meeting where Reclamation presented adaptive management options to address the disappearing inflow to Upper Klamath Lake and the critically dry hydrology, the Yurok Tribe filed a motion to lift the stay of the litigation and impose the restraining order.
At the hearing, counsel for the Yurok Tribe argued that Reclamation should have continued to release augmentation flows based on the April 1 forecast and allocation (which has since changed dramatically).
Attorneys for the federal agencies, KWUA, and the Klamath Tribes countered by explaining to the Court that Reclamation was operating in accordance with the Interim Plan. They argued that the Yurok Tribe’s requested relief would almost certainly cause harm to the Project irrigators and endangered sucker species without a corresponding benefit to out-migrating salmon.
In denying the motion to lift the stay, the Court was critical of the “run-to-court” approach and urged the parties to work together cooperatively. Judge Orrick noted that the Yurok Tribe’s quick rush to the courthouse likely detracted from Reclamation’s ability to meet with stakeholders to develop an operations plan based on updated hydrology.
“We will continue to work with the irrigation districts and Reclamation on the best strategy to maximize water supply and limit catastrophic effects to the Klamath Basin community, and with Congressional delegations and the Administration for funding for disaster relief,” said Mr. Simmons.