Tribes File Suit in Next Chapter of Klamath Lake Water Dispute

The Klamath Tribes have filed a lawsuit aimed at keeping sucker fish alive around the Upper Klamath by preserving water levels—prompting protest from the organization representing area farmers.

Posted: May 24, 2018 5:16 PM
Updated: May 24, 2018 5:37 PM

CHILOQUIN, Ore. — In yet another chapter of the ongoing dispute over water distribution along the Klamath River, the Klamath Tribes announced on Thursday that they have filed a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The lawsuit aims to preserve water levels at Upper Klamath Lake—and so, the Klamath Tribes claim, save the populations of sacred fish that live in the area.

“Our creation story tells us that if the C’waam go away, the people go away. Both the C’waam and Koptu, which are vital to our culture and subsistence, are now at imminent risk of extinction. The science makes it clear that this was the only option left to us to address the water and fish emergency in the lake,” said Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry.

C'waam and Koptu are known, in English, as Lost River and Shortnose suckers, respectively. Both the Klamath Tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been struggling to keep the fish alive in recent years as both water levels and water quality drop.

“These fish are reaching a tipping point. Too many fish are dying before they’re old enough to reproduce,” said Mark Buettner, a fisheries biologist for the Tribes.

CLICK HERE for background on the ongoing dispute over Klamath Lake water levels.

Yet the announcement earned an immediate response from the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA), an organization that represents area farmers who rely on water from the Klamath River for irrigation.

“The Klamath Tribes have chosen a strategy of isolation from the irrigation community,” said Brad Kirby, General Manager of the Tulelake Irrigation District and President of KWUA. “We will intervene and oppose any action that could affect the already-limited Klamath Project water supply. Consultation is already happening.”

The KWUA recently lost in their attempt to fight a court-ordered injunction that preserved water in Upper Klamath Lake—a ruling that was spearheaded by the Yurok Tribe of Northern California in hopes of preserving Coho salmon populations.

With reasons of need proving ineffective in court—largely due to the power of the Endangered Species Act—the KWUA has primarily staked their case on disputing the environmental science provided by the Tribes, who claim that their studies show higher lake levels can benefit the struggling populations of Klamath fish.

“I’ve been studying suckers for over fifteen years,” said Mark Johnson, Deputy Director for the KWUA and former fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “I and many others are extremely interested in information that suggests that higher lake levels will work now when they haven’t for over 25 years.”

The Klamath Tribes are disputing 'deficiencies' in the 2013 Biological Opinion that currently governs mandated water levels to preserve wildlife populations on Upper Klamath Lake.

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