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Judge denies farmers’ request on Klamath water

A federal judge Wednesday denied a request by irrigation suppliers in California’s Central Valley to stop emergency water releases intended to help salmon hundreds of miles away in the Lower Klamath River survive the drought.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill in Fresno, California, denied the temporary injunction sought by Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. Westlands is the nation’s largest supplier of water for agricultural use.

The judge ruled that the potential harm to salmon from drought conditions right now outweighs the potential harm to farmers next year.

Dan O’Hanlon, attorney for the irrigation suppliers, did not immediately respond to a telephone call and email seeking comment. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation routinely refuses to comment on pending litigation.

At issue is water in a reservoir on the Trinity River in Northern California, which has long been shared with farmers in the Central Valley. The river is the main tributary of the Klamath River, where sharing scarce water between fish and farms has long been a tough balancing act marked by lawsuits and political battles. 

The bureau ordered the emergency releases to prevent a repeat of a massive fish kill in 2002 that left more than 60,000 dead salmon in the Lower Klamath River. The agency has said the releases for salmon were not expected to reduce the amount of water exported to the Sacramento River this year, but would likely mean less water stored for next year.

Indian tribes that depend on the salmon for subsistence, ceremonial and commercial fisheries had pressed the bureau to reverse an earlier decision to only release more water once significant numbers of fish began to die.

“The court again recognized the scientific basis for the supplemental releases, and the best decision was made for the resource and the fishery,” said Susan Masten, vice chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe. “Klamath (Basin) water is meant to support Klamath River fish, not industrial agriculture in the Central Valley.”

In his ruling, O’Neill cited a statement from tribal fisheries consultant Joshua Strange that the extra water was needed to prevent an outbreak of disease from a parasite known as Ich, short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, that attacks fish crowded together in drought conditions. The parasite was the prime killer of salmon in the 2002 drought.

O’Neill noted that the fish expert for the irrigation suppliers, Charles Hanson, asserted that higher, colder flows in the Trinity would harm other protected species, such as the Western pond turtle, yellow-legged frog and lamprey.

The irrigation suppliers’ request for an injunction said that thousands of San Joaquin Valley farmers’ orchards are dying because the bureau has denied them even a small allocation of water and told them there is no water to spare. 

“But it turns out there is stored … water available for release this year after all, just not for them,” the request said.

A statement on the attempted injunction blocking Trinity water was issued by John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a coalition of salmon advocates including commercial and recreational fishermen, businesses, environmentalists and other stakeholders who depend on salmon. 

“Nobody made junior water rights holders in the western San Joaquin Valley plant permanent almond orchards so they’ve got no legitimate grounds to complain when water in coastal watersheds is used as nature intended to keep coastal salmon runs alive,” the statement read.

O’Neill has indicated that he is likely to find in favor of the irrigation suppliers on at least one of their claims in a lawsuit over last year’s releases to the Trinity, but that would not affect his findings in the current case, he said.

Staff writer Adam Spencer contributed to this report.

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