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 Klamath Basin 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 bureau 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 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ordered the emergency releases to prevent a repeat of a massive fish kill in 2002. The agency has said the salmon releases 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.
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 wrote.