Environmental groups claim too much water is being diverted.

By Todd Wels

Triplicate staff writer

The federal government is endangering threatened salmon in the Klamath River for the benefit of Oregon-based agriculture, say six environmental and fishing groups.

On Monday, the environmental groups threatened to sue the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to stop it.

The Northcoast Environmental Center and five other groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the bureau. They accused it of failing to consult the National Marine Fisheries Service before deciding how much water would be allowed to pass through Iron Gate Dam in Siskiyou County, and how much would be diverted to Oregon farmland.

According to the Endangered Species Act, the bureau must consult with National Marine Fisheries to avoid damaging threatened coho salmon in the river.

Since they are a federal agency, the least they can do is comply with the law, said Tim McKay, the executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center.

Local and state officials said they are sympathetic to the concerns raised in the notice, but declined to say whether they would support a lawsuit.

McKay said the bureau has promised large amounts of water for irrigators in Oregon without consulting with National Marine Fisheries to determine the effect it would have on the threatened coho salmon.

Last year, the Northcoast Environmental Center filed a similar 60-day notice and the bureau received a biological opinion from National Marine Fisheries, which helped it to craft its plan for the river.

That plan called for water to pass through Iron Gate Dam at a rate of 1,800 cubic feet per second in June and 1,600 cubic feet per second in July.

According to a press release by McKay, those numbers may drop by more than 63 percent this June.

My feeling is that theyve got to look at the flows at both the Klamath and Trinity rivers, said Del Norte County Supervisor and Klamath River Task Force member Chuck Blackburn.

Blackburn said he supports efforts to increase the amount of water in the river, but declined to say whether he would support a lawsuit.

The Department of Fish and Game is not really in the business of supporting or not supporting lawsuits, said Senior Biologist Gary Stacey of the California Department of Fish and Game.

He added that the department has repeatedly asked the Bureau of Reclamation to increase the amount of water in the river to protect salmon habitat.

He said the amount of water released into the river under the current plan is not enough to sustain the 4.5 million chinook smolts Fish and Game plans to release from Iron Gate Hatchery into the river this June.

Government officials arent the only ones worried about the rivers water level.

Yurok tribal fisherman Paul Van Mechelen, fishing at the mouth of the Klamath Wednesday, said the river is the at the lowest levels hes seen it in the last 10 years.

The Bureau of Reclamation could not be reached for comment.