updated 3/28/2006 11:13:39 AM ET 2006-03-28T16:13:39

A federal judge has ordered the government to institute a Klamath River management plan immediately instead of waiting five more years, which means farmers could be deprived of irrigation if water levels drop low enough to threaten the survival of coho salmon.

U.S. District Court Judge Saundra Armstrong said Monday that if river levels fail to meet 100 percent of the water flow needed for the coho as determined by the National Marine Fisheries Service, then farmers who rely on the Klamath will have to do without.

That should not be a problem this year because a wet winter has left Northwest rivers swollen.

“Everyone should get what they need,” said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney who represents the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and other groups who opposed the government’s plan for balancing water needs between the coho salmon and farms.

But how to meet the salmon water requirements of farmers during dry seasons still remains an open question.

“The wet winter does give us time to sit down with them and see how we can meet those requirements,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations in San Francisco.

Commercial fishing organizations and environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2002, alleging that the government’s plan to wait eight years to provide the full amount of water needed for coho survival in the water-scarce basin was insufficient to ensure the salmon’s survival.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed last year, ruling the plan to be arbitrary and capricious and not supported by science. Armstrong on Monday rejected government arguments that it had new explanations supporting its plan to wait until 2010, and ordered the salmon to immediately have first dibs on the Klamath River.

Stephen Macfarlane, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney who represents the fisheries agency, said he hadn’t read the ruling and declined comment.

The Klamath Reclamation Project irrigates 180,000 acres straddling the Oregon-California line in the high desert east of the Cascade Range. Irrigation was cut off to most of the project in 2001 to protect threatened coho, then restored the next year.

In the fall of 2002, tens of thousands of adult Chinook salmon died in the lower Klamath from diseases associated with low and warm water, as well as some coho. Untold numbers of juvenile salmon died in the spring.

Federal fisheries managers last year sharply reduced sport and commercial ocean harvests up and down the West Coast to reduce the likelihood Klamath fish would be killed. Similar restrictions could happen this year.


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