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San Francisco Judge Sides with Feds, Farmers in Klamath Water Dispute

Judge Orrick ruled that the Klamath Tribes' attempt to sue federal water regulators over water levels in Upper Klamath Lake should be tried in an Oregon court.

Posted: Jul. 26, 2018 4:14 PM

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Farmers of the Klamath Basin gained a victory on Wednesday in the ongoing dispute over water levels in Upper Klamath Lake. Judge William Orrick, a federal district court judge for the Northern District of California, ruled against the Klamath Tribes, forcing them to move their suit to Oregon.

The Klamath Tribes filed their lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in May, suing to keep water levels in Upper Klamath Lake higher than previously mandated. They argue that the Lost River and Shortnose suckers—two species of endangered fish of traditional importance to the tribes that have struggled to rebound in recent years—are negatively impacted by low water levels in the lake.

Yet irrigators in the Klamath Basin, represented by the Klamath Water Users Association, have fought attempts to further regulate water levels, as they rely on water released from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation of farmland.

Although the case writ large is far from concluded, Judge Orrick decided on Wednesday that the Northern District of California was not the appropriate venue for the case.

"Considering the facts and arguments presented, I conclude that venue should be in the District of Oregon. The Klamath Tribes’ headquarters is in Oregon, the sucker fish and their habitat in Upper Klamath Lake is in Oregon, FWS (which has jurisdiction over the sucker fish) is in Oregon, and the Bureau’s actions giving rise to plaintiff’s concerns about the sucker fish occurred in Oregon," Judge Orrick said in his ruling.

Part of the Klamath Tribes' argument for trying the case in California related to a previous case presided over by Judge Orrick that broke in favor of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes. Although similarly focused on water levels in Upper Klamath Lake, that case concerned Klamath River Coho salmon that travel the river's length, and was brought by two tribes based in California.

"The court granted KWUA and the government’s motions to change venue to Oregon which means that this case could be heard in an Oregon court," said a statement from the KWUA. "But yesterday’s ruling makes clear that the Klamath Tribes would have to find different arguments in order to have a chance of obtaining the type of ruling they asked for."

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