Tribe Claims Bureau of Reclamation’s Actions Restrict Water Flow Necessary For Religious Ceremony

The Yurok Tribe and one of its officials filed an Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) suit last week, seeking declaratory relief from actions committed by the defendant, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau). The Northern District of California filing asks that the Bureau be required to provide the water release necessary for the Tribe to practice its ceremonial “Boat Dance” scheduled for August 30.

The Yurok Reservation, home of California’s largest Native American tribe, was established on the lower Klamath River, so that the Tribe “could maintain its fishing and river-centric way of life.” During the Boat Dance ceremony “religious practitioners dance in large hand-carved redwood canoes and travel on the Klamath River near Weitchpec, the most upstream community on the Yurok Reservation.” In order to ensure the safety of participants, there must be “sufficient water in the river to provide predictable currents and a water depth that allows for the canoes to pass over a riffle,” according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs explained that the Bureau is in charge of the Klamath Project and releasing water from various dams to “quite literally, keep water in stretches of the Klamath River.” The complaint contended that “(a)s a federal agency, the Bureau has a federal trust responsibility to manage and protect Yurok trust resources and to work with the Tribe on a government-to-government basis when, but not limited to, undertaking activities that have the potential to affect the rights of the Yurok Tribe and its members.”

On August 19, after multiple correspondences with the Bureau about whether it would release the 7,000-acre feet (AF) of water needed for the Boat Dance in accordance with the Bureau’s 2020 annual operations plan (AOP), the Tribe was informed that the Bureau had decided not to release the water. In its brief email notification to the Tribe, the Bureau cited concerns with “carryover storage, water for the 2021 water year, and satisfying other requirements.” However, the news came despite the fact that data indicated otherwise, that there was sufficient available water upstream, according to the complaint.

The Tribe claimed that the decision contravenes the factual evidence before the agency that showed that there was and is sufficient volume to satisfy the 7,000 AF release in accordance with the Bureau’s AOP and other federal water commitments. Because the Bureau’s “final hour” decision was baseless in light of the information available, the plaintiffs contended that its evaluation was arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA.

As to its RFRA claim, the Tribe argued that the Bureau’s decision “is a governmental action that substantially burdens the ability of… Yurok Tribal members to exercise their religious and spiritual practices.” Furthermore, the Tribe asserted, the Bureau’s decision “was not supported by a compelling interest nor is it the least restrictive means of accomplishing the government’s goals,” thus, it violates the RFRA.

The plaintiffs request that the court declare that the Bureau’s decision runs afoul of the RFRA and require it to “immediately plan, coordinate, and to provide” the release of water necessary for the late August ceremony.

The plaintiffs are represented by Cordalis Law, P.C. and an attorney from the Yurok Tribe.