Judge says Klamath plan needs revisions

  A federal judge has sent the Bureau of Reclamation back to the drawing board with the management plan for the Klamath River Basin. In Oakland, Calif., Judge Saundra Brown Armstong called parts of the plan “arbitrary and capricious” and demanded that the National Marine Fisheries Service revise its biological opinion, on which the management plan is based (HCN, 6/23/03: 'Sound science' goes sour).

Commercial fishermen, environmental groups, and the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes had challenged the plan in court, claiming it benefits irrigators at the expense of threatened coho salmon. They say their concerns were justified in fall 2002, when 33,000 salmon and steelhead died while migrating up the Klamath River to spawn, but the federal government denies low flow levels were responsible (HCN, 10/14/02: Dead fish clog the low-flowing Klamath).

Although Judge Armstrong said the management plan violates the Endangered Species Act, she did not require the Bureau of Reclamation to change water allocations this year. “We cross our fingers and hope there won’t be a fish kill again (this fall),” says Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles. Eventually, the ruling could mean less water for Klamath Basin irrigators, she says.

But farmers and Bureau officials disagree. Judge Armstrong ordered the Fisheries Service to guarantee water sources and set limits for how many fish can be harmed, but she did not request higher river flows. This means “the judge believes that the flows (laid out in the biological opinion) are the best available science,” says Jeff McCracken, with the Bureau of Reclamation.

“If the plan were as flawed as environmental groups are saying, then she would have thrown it out,” says Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. “We’re saying (the ruling) is a victory (for farmers) because in no way does it affect us.”