Victory for Klamath Basin farmers. Report says irrigation

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Scientific Report Roils a Salmon War

By Michael Grunwald, Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, February 4, 2002

The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that federal biologists had no scientific justification for their efforts to protect endangered fish by withholding water from farmers in the drought-ravaged Klamath Basin of the Pacific Northwest last year, a potentially explosive development in the nation's most intense environmental battle.

In a 26-page report obtained by The Washington Post, the academy directly contradicted the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing that there was "no substantial scientific foundation" for its April 2001 rulings that the basin's federal irrigation project was threatening the survival of rare suckerfish and salmon.

Those rulings essentially forced Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton to deny water to the region's farmers during last summer's drought, igniting furious rallies and civil disobedience while turning the sucker into a national symbol for conservative critics of the Endangered Species Act.

The evaluation by the independent academy, conducted at Norton's request, found that far more farm-friendly proposals by another federal agency -- the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the irrigation project -- were also unjustified by science. But overall, the academy's unusually blunt conclusion that there was no basis for any changes to the status quo represents a major victory for farmers and their supporters, who had questioned the FWS and NMFS demands for higher water levels in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River all along. It is also a major setback for environmentalists, fishermen and Native American tribes who support the water restrictions in this ecologically diverse region of Northern California and southern Oregon, and a major embarrassment to the environmental agencies themselves.

The academy's study by a dozen scientists, scheduled for release Wednesday, has prompted the Bush administration to send those agencies back to the drawing board, and several officials predicted that the result will be much more water for the Klamath's farmers. The president vowed during a speech in Portland last month to do everything in his power to help them, and Norton has hinted throughout the controversy that she was only withholding their water because she had little other option.

Norton said in a statement this weekend that she had ordered aides -- including Steve Williams, who was sworn in as the new Fish and Wildlife director last week -- to evaluate the academy's critique within the next 10 days, and suggested that changes in the basin's water allocations may be on the way. "I am concerned by the weaknesses revealed by the NAS study," said Norton. "By challenging the analysis, the study will affect our decision-making process for this year and future years.'

Last year's process led to pandemonium in the Klamath. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Interior Department and oversees purely freshwater fish, concluded in its biological opinion that low lake levels were jeopardizing the endangered shortnose sucker and Lost River sucker.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Commerce Department and regulates anadromous fish, concluded at the same time that low river levels were unacceptable for the threatened coho salmon. Both of those opinions translated into less federal water available for farmers. And then the region suffered through its worst drought ever, so there was no water released to farmers until October, wiping out most of the growing season.

At the time, outraged local farmers joined with national "wise use" groups such as People for the USA and Frontiers of Freedom in open defiance of the agencies. Some farmers wore light-blue ribbons and pins urging the government to "Stop the Rural Genocide."

Others seized control of the irrigation headgates, flying an American flag upside down and repeatedly diverting water to parched potato and alfalfa farms. Local police refused to arrest them, and eventually federal agents had to patrol the gates around the clock.

Amid a steady barrage of relief convoys and bucket brigades, this has become the most inflamed environmental issue in the Northwest since the spotted owl; Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), facing a tough reelection battle, last month appealed to Bush to intervene during a meeting on Air Force One.

Since November, the academy has studied the same information used by the agencies, but it drew very different conclusions. It found that data "has not shown a clear connection between water level in Upper Klamath Lake and conditions that are adverse to the welfare of suckers." In fact, it noted that the best year ever recorded for sucker survival was a low-water year. The academy also took issue with the Marine Fisheries Service's effort to increase river flows, arguing that it could make conditions even more "lethal" for salmon by increasing water temperatures.

Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, said the academy's study will vindicate the protesters as people who just wanted to protect their livelihoods, and expose the federal scientists who tried to protect suckers at the expense of people. "You can't trust the science, because you can't trust the scientists," Cushman said. "They've got a biased point of view, and there's no way for people to fight back."

A Fish and Wildlife Service official said that despite the scientific disagreements, the academy complimented much of the agency's work and made no accusations of bias.

He said that the study was equally dismissive of the less environmentally focused Bureau of Reclamation, which last week floated a proposal that would provide much more water to farmers and much less to the lake.

He also emphasized that this is only an interim report -- a more exhaustive study is due in 18 months -- and suggested that the academy may change its views as more data becomes available.

"They didn't say the science proves we were wrong; they just said there wasn't enough science to prove us right," the official said. "We have very good biologists. They had to make a professional judgment, and they did the best they could."

The Klamath basin is sometimes called the Everglades of the Northwest, a reference in part to the constant competition for its water among fish, farmers, tribes and six national wildlife refuges, in part to the tremendous natural values of a region where old-growth forest meets the great-basin desert.

More than 400,000 acres of the basin has been drained for agriculture, but it is still a prime flyway for waterfowl, and hosts the largest winter population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.

Larry Dunsmoor, a biologist for the Klamath tribe, warned that the region is simply too dry to go back to the old status quo. "The academy is looking for a crystal-clear cause-and-effect, but this is a very complex ecosystem," said Dunsmoor, who has studied the suckers for 13 years.

Jim Waltman, director of wildlife and refuges for the Wilderness Society, said the academy was sacrificing logic in its search for clear-cut proof: The fish, he said, are dying -- and fish need water. "This is like saying we can't really prove that cigarette smoking causes cancer," he said. "It's intuitive: lower lake levels will not help endangered fish."

But intuition, the academy suggested, is not the same thing as sound science.

"Whoa," said one federal official who had not seen the report. "This is really going to shake things up."
 

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