August 7, 2001
One of the West’s most contentious spots this summer has been the Klamath Basin region of southern Oregon and northern California, where drought conditions have pitted farmers reliant on water diversions for irrigation against environmentalists and defenders of wildlife habitat.
Jumping into the fray were the Oregon Natural Resources Council, WaterWatch of Oregon, Northcoast Environmental Center and Golden Gate Audubon Society, which filed suit in federal court over the lack of water deliveries to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Those deliveries, according to the groups, are required by the federal Endangered Species Act.
After weeks of unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a settlement, the Oregon- and California-based groups filed suit to ensure that minimal water deliveries to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge are met to sustain the refuges’ 1,100 wintering bald eagles.
The ONRC said that on April 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Biological Opinion requiring that the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge receive 32,255 acre-feet of water, as well as determining that up to 1,100 bald eagles could be adversely affected if the refuge does not receive water.
The opinion states that if there is extra water in Upper Klamath Lake, the government “shall provide water to the Lower Klamath NWR [National Wildlife Refuge] for use in the maintenance of wetlands and other habitats and associated waterfowl populations necessary to support wintering bald eagles.” (USFWS BiOp, Section III, Part 1, page 35). The requirement that extra water go to the refuge and eagles is “nondiscretionary,” and must be followed to ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act, said the ONRC.
The group contends that despite the strong language in the opinion, the federal government is ignoring this requirement and thereby letting the wildlife refuge go dry.
In July, the Bush Administration began releasing approximately 75,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation. None of that released water, said the ONRC, will go to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
The 32,255 acre-feet of water that was to be provided to the refuge would only accommodate 125,000 waterfowl, or about 6 percent of the refuge’s 1.8 million birds, but that small amount of water is being withheld, according to the ONRC. About 1,000 acre-feet has been sent to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge by electric utility PacifiCorp.
According to ONRC, 90 percent of the Klamath Basin’s bald eagles feed exclusively on the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. The Klamath Basin attracts nearly 80 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s waterfowl and supports the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, added the group.