PORTLAND, Ore. – Environmentalists told the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Thursday they will file a lawsuit unless the agency prepares a plan for distributing limited Klamath Basin water to farmers, endangered fish species and wildlife refuges by April 1.
Environmentalists last year won a similar lawsuit, forcing the agency to shut off irrigation water to about 220,000 acres of farmland in the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project so that there was enough water for endangered sucker fish and threatened coho salmon.
The shutdown sparked angry protests by farmers who pried open the headgates to an irrigation canal, prompting the agency to call in federal police. If the bureau doesn't file a water-use plan, environmentalists say they will sue to make sure there is enough water for suckers and coho salmon.
"A year ago, we were in a similar position," said Todd True, a lawyer with the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund. "We don't want to go there again. The administration has 60 days to do what the law requires and we expect them to do that."
Jeff McCracken, a Sacramento, Calif.-based spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, did not return messages left Thursday.
A wet winter and a better-than-average snowpack will likely make it easier for the bureau to meet everyone's water needs this year — but that doesn't undo the problem, True said.
"There's less chance of a complete train wreck this year, because there's more snow in the mountains. But that's a false sense of security," he said. "We're kidding ourselves if we think one wet year is going to solve the problem."
Also at issue is whether the agency will submit a long-range plan for the Klamath Basin or will issue a one-year proposal, as it has done in the past.
Environmentalists and commercial fishing groups would like to see the bureau craft a long-term plan that will give farmers and fishermen a multiyear framework on which to plan their water use.
The groups said Thursday that the Bush administration promised last August it would prepare a five-year water-use plan for the Klamath Basin in 2002. With the April 1 deadline drawing near, however, the environmentalists worry the agency will draw up a one-year plan instead.
"We are within seven weeks of their deadline," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations Inc.
Spain said the bureau can't continue to "... lurch from year to year on inconsistent plans based on a one-year horizon ..." because farmers and fragile fish need a water supply that is stable and predictable.