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KLAMATH FALLS FWO: Joint Biological Opinion Improves Water Management for Fish, Farmers in Klamath Basin
California-Nevada Offices , August 16, 2013
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Lost River suckers spawning in Silver Building Springs, at Upper Klamath Lake in March 2010.
Lost River suckers spawning in Silver Building Springs, at Upper Klamath Lake in March 2010. - Photo Credit: USFWS/Ron Larson
Josh Murphy, USFWS, holds a large Lost River sucker from Tule Lake.
Josh Murphy, USFWS, holds a large Lost River sucker from Tule Lake. - Photo Credit: USFWS/John Hodge

By Naomi Nishihara
In the Klamath Basin, water needed for suckers in the lake, salmon downstream, area farmers, national wildlife refuges and also storage outweighs the water available.

Klamath Basin is a drainage basin on the border between California and Oregon, and the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) manages and distributes the water.

As required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Reclamation must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to ensure that irrigation operations do not jeopardize the survival or recovery of any endangered or threatened species.

FWS has jurisdiction over two endangered sucker species in the Basin, NMFS has jurisdiction over the threatened coho salmon, and in the years past the two federal agencies advised Reclamation independently.

At times the water requirements for the listed species and Project irrigation deliveries have conflicted.

Beginning several years ago, FWS and NMFS collaborated with Reclamation on a joint biological opinion to protect imperiled fish. The process, completed this year, considered the requirements of both agencies’ fish and resulted in one cohesive plan. The joint biological opinion was published in May. 

“I never thought I would do something like that in my career, where two departments, three agencies, four tribes and farmers all came together to do the best they could to address the needs of listed fish while keeping the Klamath Project (irrigation) functional in most years,” said Laurie Sada, field supervisor at the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office. “It was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life, the day I sat down and signed the joint biological opinion.”

The over-allocation of Klamath water can be traced historically.

The Klamath Project, a federal irrigation project, was established in the Basin over 100 years ago, converting 250,000 acres of wetland into farms to encourage human migration. Decades later, when the coho and suckers were listed, Reclamation began consulting with FWS and NMFS.

FWS was charged with protecting the endangered Lost River suckers and shortnose suckers in Klamath Lake and nearby rivers and streams. The suckers would suffer if the lake levels were drained too low, and by 2010, the shoreline spawning population of Lost River suckers was estimated to have already declined to between 56 and 75 percent of 2002 levels.

Similar patterns were also becoming apparent in other sucker populations as well. Shortnose suckers are estimated to have declined to 30 percent of 2001 levels, and data has indicated that neither sucker species has had a new adult generation join the population in over 15 years. 

NFMS meanwhile was charged with protecting the endangered salmon downstream, and just as suckers require sufficient water for their recovery, coho salmon have water needs as well. Balancing the water requirements of these species in view of Project irrigation needs was a constant challenge.

“The Project is a complex network of canals and ditches, but simply put, there is a dam that controls how much water goes downstream and how much stays in the lake, stored for diversions to the Project,” Sada said.

Before this year’s joint biological opinion, ESA consultations in Klamath Basin were independent of each other. FWS completed its previous biological opinion in 2008, laying out requirements for the suckers. NMFS, however, completed its biological opinion later, in 2010, with requirements for coho salmon.

During this time, Reclamation had been managing water by updating the operation model, which guides the water management, with water supply forecast data and water use once per month.

Under this operational scenario, there were many times when water supply forecast predicted more water than actually became available, and in these cases, too much water would be released during the month, resulting in overutilization and shortages.

The separate biological opinions made balancing the available water even more challenging under certain hydrologic conditions. According to Sada, this approach “just didn’t work.”

In 2010 the regional directors for Reclamation, FWS and NMFS got together and directed their field stations to work together and update Project operations. Reclamation was to develop a new strategy for storing and delivering water, and the FWS and NMFS were to work together to develop a joint biological opinion.

“There were a lot of things being done, that had been done historically, that needed to be updated, including data concerning historical water use, operational models and the way forecasts of water supply were used,” Sada said. “We all agreed that we needed to move into a ‘real time’ management approach that more accurately synced water use to water availability.”

Under the joint biological opinion, processes are on a daily time step, meaning that the operation model is updated with water availability and use data each day.

This approach is expected to both improve both the water flow in Klamath River and to provide water elevations in Upper Klamath Lake that are more reflective of natural inflow variations. Thus, given the amount of water that is available, benefits for the Lost River suckers, shortnose suckers and coho salmon will be maximized throughout the year.

“There were really two messages that everyone needed to learn,” Sada said. “One, we needed to manage water based on hydrological conditions—based on what’s really going on out there with rainfall, snowpack and streamflows. Two, it’s a continuum. What we do today affects tomorrow, so what we take out of the lake this fall will affect what happens next year.”

After reviewing the current status of the suckers and the effects of the proposed action, the FWS determined that the Project may now continue to operate for another 10 years without jeopardizing the continued existence of the endangered species.

Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents project farmers, has expressed his approval of the joint opinion to multiple news sources. He has stated that it is both “new” and “good,” and that it will allow them to “manage a block of water and know what (their) supply is at the beginning of a season.” He also stated that “up until now, we have never had that luxury.”

It’s a very tight balancing game, according to Sada. Every drop is accounted for, and even with the best data things don’t always work out. “You just don’t know what the weather’s going to do,” Sada said.

Joint biological opinions like this have not been implemented at this scale before, according to Sada. “(FWS and NMFS) are in different departments,” she said. “It’s not easy to do things across federal agencies, let alone across departments. It is all about relationships and trust.”

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Naomi Nishihara is a student at the University of California – Davis and is working as a public affairs intern this summer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Sacramento, California.


Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov



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