SACRAMENTO — The U.S. Interior Department agreed Tuesday to an independent review of the scientific findings that led to the virtual shutdown of water delivery to farmers in the drought-plagued Klamath Basin.
Irrigators in the region, a fertile swath that straddles the Oregon-California border, have argued for months that "fuzzy science" led to the listing of several fish species as endangered and turned off the tap to parched farm fields.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the National Academy of Sciences will be called on to review scientific and technical information about two types of endangered suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon downstream.
"We should base our decisions on the best available science," Norton said, adding that she hopes the review will satisfy the factions warring over water in the region.
Findings by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service led the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to cut about three-quarters of the annual water allotment to Klamath farmers over the summer.
Farmers, who believe the danger to the fish has been overblown, said they were pleased with the decision to seek the independent review. But they remain worried that answers won't come soon enough to ensure that enough water will be delivered to their fields next year.
"It's good news, but it's not going to be in time for next year's growing season," said Mike Byrne, who farms alfalfa and barley in Tulelake, Calif. "People are already trying to figure out what to do next year. They have to deal with their bankers."
Fishermen and environmentalists, who have fought attempts by the farmers to draw more water out of the lake and river, said they welcomed the academy's review.
"We're by no means afraid," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "The science is bulletproof. This will demonstrate what we all know: Fish need water to exist."
The National Academy of Sciences' review could be rendered moot if lawmakers in Washington weigh in on the Klamath fight. Oregon's two U.S senators have pushed legislation to ease the conflict.
But a debate on those bills could stall with Congress focused on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and resulting preparations for reprisals by U.S. forces overseas. The cost of a prolonged anti-terrorism effort could reduce funding available to fix the situation in the Klamath basin.
Farmers in the area, many of them World War II veterans who won land lotteries, are behind the defense effort. But they hope Congress can reach some accommodation to avoid a financial meltdown for them.
"We think the security of the nation comes first," Byrne said. "But people's livelihoods are at risk up here. If you go two years without crop, you're pretty much out of business."
Byrne is also concerned that the national academy's review won't consider the findings of researchers hired by Klamath irrigators. Those scientists suggest that the suckerfish in particular are doing far better than federal biologists have suggested. He said the fish, which numbered about 5,000 in the lake when the species was listed more than a decade ago, now have swelled to at least 100,000.
The endangered status of the Klamath River's coho salmon, meanwhile, could be affected by a federal judge's decision last month in Oregon. District Judge Michael J. Hogan threw out protections that have been in place since 1998 for the coho in Oregon, saying federal biologists were arbitrary and capricious when they put wild coho on the endangered list but didn't extend the same protection to hatchery fish.
Both sides in the Klamath fight speculate that Hogan's decision, which environmentalists plan to fight, will have ripple effects.
"There's little doubt the irrigators will go after this," said Steve Pedery of WaterWatch of Oregon. "But if the coho is delisted, it doesn't make the water problem in the river go away."