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Experts Say Farms, Not Fish, Should Get Disputed Water

Science: Federal panel finds there was no basis for policy that led to Klamath confrontations.

February 04, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The National Academy of Sciences has determined that federal regulators erred by sharply limiting water to the Klamath Basin's drought-stricken farmers last summer to save endangered fish.

The academy concluded that there is "no substantial scientific foundation" for a decision by federal biologists that led to water cutbacks last April to agriculture fields to help endangered salmon and suckerfish.

But the 12-scientist panel that reviewed the situation in Klamath, a broad swath of marshes and farmland straddling the Oregon and California border, also found fault with recent water allocation proposals by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that favored farmers over fish.

The 26-page interim report, which will be released Wednesday but was obtained Sunday evening by The Times, also suggests that water be divvied up between fish and agriculture at about the same levels as it has for the past decade.

The provocative findings of the report, ordered up by the Bush administration last fall, are likely to have a profound effect on one of the nation's most contentious environmental battles in recent years.

The academy's conclusions represented a significant victory for farmers, who for years have questioned the biological opinions offered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, which act as stewards for the environment.

Those federal agencies advocated higher lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake to save two endangered suckerfish species and higher flows into the Klamath River to help the beleaguered coho salmon.

With more water for the fish, the farmers were left with less, a result that turned disastrous last year as the Klamath region went through one of its worst droughts ever.

"They're concluding what we've been saying for 10 years," said Rob Crawford, a farmer in Tulelake, Calif. "But to have the academy say it sends a very clear message to a lot of folks: This just can't continue. American communities can't continue to be treated the way we've been."

Environmentalists, fishermen and Native American tribes--who support the water restrictions in the Klamath as a way to help revive fish populations--were dismayed by the findings.

"It's hard to believe, given the declines in the Klamath's fisheries," said Jay Watson, the Wilderness Society's state regional director. "The sucker and salmon populations have been hammered."

Jim McCarthy of the Klamath Forest Alliance said the scientific panel's findings are undercut because it lacked a key ingredient: an expert on lakes.

"I think their findings are suspect," McCarthy said. ". . .It seems this administration is adopting a completely confrontational policy against environmental protection. It's at odds with the values of the American public."

The academy's findings come amid increasing signs that the Bush administration intends to do whatever it can to ensure that farmers in the region don't go dry.

The president vowed during a speech in Portland last month to do everything in his power to help Klamath's farmers. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who oversees all the federal agencies embroiled in the Klamath fight, has hinted throughout the crisis that she felt hamstrung by the biological opinions and hoped to somehow reverse course.

Federal officials involved in the Klamath debate, meanwhile, were scrambling after learning of the academy's findings. After reviewing the interim report, Norton ordered the various agencies to evaluate the academy's findings over the next 10 days.

Klamath's travails were ignited last year after a ruling by federal biologists forced the new Bush administration to order water cutbacks to farmers, prompting a storm of protest in the region.

Demonstrations throughout the summer drew a broad swath of activists, including property-rights advocates and anti-government adherents.

But the fight exploded as protesters repeatedly stormed the head-gates at the main irrigation canal, forcing them open. After local police refused to weigh in, federal agents had to patrol the gates around the clock.

At Norton's request, the academy launched a study of the biological data used to justify the water cutbacks last year.

It found that previous study "has not show a clear connection" between higher lake levels and improved conditions for the suckerfish, noting that incidents of fish die-offs have not paralleled years of low water level.

Concurrently, the academy concluded that salmon could be hurt by releasing extra water during drought years like 2001. The water is warmed up significantly in upstream reservoirs, to a level that would "equal or exceed the lethal temperatures" for coho salmon during hot summer months, the academy found. "Addition of substantial amounts of warm water could be detrimental."

But the academy also found fault with proposals by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the system of canals and dams that provide Klamath's irrigation water. Last week, the bureau released a study that proposes sharp reductions in lake levels and to the river downstream, presenting what the academy calls "an unknown risk" to the fish. The academy suggested the agency stick to its usual methods.

The National Academy of Sciences is an arm of the federal government called on to settle scientific disputes. The 12 members of the panel that reviewed the Klamath situation are scientists drawn from universities around the country.

More than 200,000 acres of farmland in the basin is irrigated by the federal project, which was launched nearly a century ago and is one of the oldest such efforts in the West.

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