Severe drought in 2001 affected the Klamath River Basin, an area on the California-Oregon border, exacerbating competition for scarce water resources and generating conflict among several interests – farmers, municipal and industrial users, commercial and sport fishermen, other recreationists, federal wildlife refuges, environmental groups, and Indian Tribes. The conflicts over water distribution and allocation are physically and legally complex, reflecting the varied and sometimes competing uses of limited water supplies in the Upper Basin.
On April 6, 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau), which has supplied water to farms in the Upper Basin for nearly 100 years, announced that “no water [would] be available” for farms normally receiving water from the Upper Klamath Lake, so that scarce water could be used to protect species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Water was available to some farmers from other sources (e.g., wells and other Bureau sources); however, many farmers were not able to plant or harvest crops due to severe cutbacks in water supplies. Emotions ran high on all sides of the issues, and the water control gates were unlawfully opened by protesters. Although the Basin has received significantly more precipitation in 2002, many issues remain in dispute. In addition, several judicial decisions have affected the issues with respect to the listed species as well as tribal rights.
On May 31, 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service both issued Final Biological Opinions on the Bureau’s 10-year Operation Plan for the Klamath Project. The agencies found that the Bureau’s proposed action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the two listed suckers and coho salmon, as well as result in the adverse modification of proposed critical habitat; however, both Opinions also included “reasonable and prudent alternatives” for operating the Project that would remove the jeopardizing effects of the proposed action. However, on June 3, 2002, the Bureau formally rejected both Final Biological Opinions, but opted instead to operate under a one-year plan that it asserts complies with the Opinions.
Independently, in March 2002, the President appointed a high-level working group to develop solutions. Congress has responded to the controversy in a number of ways, including holding several oversight hearings and appropriating funds for water conservation activities in the area.
This report provides background on the geographic, historic, and legal underpinnings of the current conflicts. Because the report focuses on the current conflicts, it deals primarily with Klamath Project operations in the Upper Klamath Basin and effects associated with water releases from Upper Klamath Lake.