Government regulators quizzed about Klamath

Published August 1, 2001

Forty-six days following a federal decision to strip a community of its livelihood, economy, and pride by enacting a cutoff of irrigation water to protect fish species, members of the California State Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife wanted to know why.

“All of this is based on a biological opinion that has illogical conclusions, inconsistent, contradictory statements, factual inaccuracies, and rampant speculation. It’s a bad decision based on bad science,” said Rep. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley). “If these gentlemen (federal government panelists) here had the courage to admit that the biological opinions they are using to enforce the existing rules are flawed, they could change the decision today and could open the faucet tomorrow.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) called the hearing to gather information on the Klamath Basin crisis: to learn why it had occurred and about the people who call the basin home. Committee members carefully questioned the first panelists: Jim Lecky, National Marine Fisheries Service assistant regional administrator for protected resources; Kirk Rodgers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation acting regional director; Phil Detrich, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project leader; and Jonas Minton, Department of Water Resources deputy director.

Government panelists defend Klamath actions

The first three government agency presenters discussed a report, the Hardy Phase I Study conducted by Tom Hardy of Utah State University, that evaluates flow needs of the Klamath River. The biological opinion for Coho salmon is based on this report, which resulted in more than tripling water flows into the Klamath River. The biological opinions for Coho salmon and sucker fish further increased water levels for fish, and eliminated water levels for farmers.

Aanestad read a report, by the Oregon State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, which criticizes the biological opinion on sucker fish species for its editorial problems and lack of good sense. Aanestad quoted the report, stating, “Editorial problems of the Hardy Study include illogical conclusions, vagueness, inconsistent and contradictory statements often back-to-back, factual inaccuracies, lack of rigor, rampant speculation, format, content, and organizational structure makes it very difficult to evaluate this biological opinion.”

Critics of the Hardy Study further stated, “We urge in the strongest possible way that the service revisit this opinion. The document is excessively wrong. Problems are not window dressing, rather they obscure the data. This makes it very difficult to find validity in claims. This document has the potential to have a severe negative impact on the service’s public credibility.”

“If you are basing your actions on something like this, there is something dreadfully wrong here,” Aanestad said.

Lecky defended the Hardy Study and actions taken by the NMFS, making it clear the agency is required to make determinations under a deadline and is not allowed to defer a determination.

“We don’t have that luxury to defer a lack of information. We are required to use the best information available,” Lecky said. “The Hardy Study in its current format is the body of scientific information that currently is available on the relationship between flows and salmon habitat for Iron Gate Dam.”

Committee members also asked whether the biological opinion went through a peer review process before it was submitted. Rodgers admitted no peer review had taken place. Detrich mentioned no requirement exists under the Endangered Species Act or elsewhere that issuing agencies undergo peer review. Under the time constraints agencies were given to complete the opinion, Detrich said they simply did not have time to seek outside feedback. Agencies were given 135 days to prepare the opinion, but due to various delays were forced to complete it in 45.

“When you say you are not required to have peer review, whoever writes the first biological opinion within the time frame, that’s the science you are going to use without going to other people within the industry and saying is this right or is this wrong, or does this need adjusting? It just seems to me to be a very poor way to do the public’s business,” said Rep. Dick Dickerson (R- Shasta).

“You should have peer review, he continued. “You should have more than one scientific opinion before you attempt to render your decision. It’s unconscionable for you to do otherwise under the shelter of the regulation you are supposed to be working under. It seems to me as regulators you would want to have the best information available, not just the only information available.”

Detrich stressed agencies do want to get the best available information, and in this instance he feels the Department of Fish and Game did so under the time allotted.

“The Hardy Study will be submitted through the peer review process for the downstream flows. That process takes the better part of a year to get through, so if you want us to incorporate that kind of peer review process in a biological opinion, then the time frames we’re bound by must be modified,” Lecky said.

Government agency representatives were also asked if they had considered impacts to the economy, and to wildlife, such as waterfowl. Rep. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) asked the panel to share economic impact study findings. The committee learned that no economic impact report had been done. Hollingsworth noted that an economic analysis is required under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

Panelists also acknowledged that the effect on other wildlife, such as waterfowl, of not irrigating 210,000 acres of the Klamath Basin was also not considered when forming the biological opinion.

Environmentalists, ranchers, farmers disagree

Bill Gaines, of the California Waterfowl Association, stated the Klamath Basin is the most important nesting and staging area throughout North America for waterfowl, and it is crucial to the preservation of the Pacific flyway waterfowl population. Gaines was part of the second group of panelists who spoke in favor of Klamath Basin farmers and against the Endangered Species Act.

“Similar to the Central Valley where we depend so heavily on rice to provide certain habitat for waterfowl, in the Klamath Basin we also depend very heavily on wildlife-friendly agriculture to help meet the needs of those birds,” Gaines said. “Three species of fish are literally holding the local economy, the many people that live there, and over 430 documented wildlife species, hostage in the Klamath Basin. The California Waterfowl Association does not believe that was the intent of the Endangered Species Act.”

Tulelake rancher Mike Byrne told the committee his grandfather gave up private water rights in exchange for the Klamath Project and water deliveries to the ranch, yet this is the first time in 90 years water has not come to his property. “We don’t want money. We want our water,” Byrne said.

“We don’t want to raise our families to be welfare recipients. We don’t want to turn our farm laborers into government program recipients. We had a very good economy going.”

Byrne’s daughter, Brianna, a Tulelake High School student and member of Tulelake Future Farmers of America, spoke for the young people of the basin, noting the youth of the Klamath Basin are concerned about their futures.

“We are taught the value of hard work and learn to appreciate agriculture by working on our families’ and neighbors’ farms and ranches. This year, there will be none of that,” Byrne said. “How can I and the other members of my chapter of Future Farmers feel any sense of security of pursuing agriculture as a career when the government of the strongest nation on Earth takes away the core of our history and community based upon unproven and speculative science? We fear we will have to abandon our dreams and all that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had worked for.”

Vernacio Hernandez, a Tulelake farmer, explained his situation to the committee, saying his main goal in life is to provide his children with the education he never had.

“My dreams of farming on my own and watching my children succeed are basically destroyed. The pain that I feel is made much worse when I look in my children’s eyes and I know their hopes and dreams are dying too,” Hernandez said.

An emotional Rep. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) was shook up by what he had heard during the hearing and stressed action must be taken to help the people and farmers in the Klamath Basin.

“I feel like I need to apologize to the people who are here today because I was helpless to be able to help them the way a representative should. To listen to the report of the federal government and to learn an economic review was simply not done and that the local community was excluded from participating or providing their input . . . it leaves one weak,” Leslie said.

He continued, “Today I’m not real proud of our federal government. I’m embarrassed by it. Use of fraudulent science that even ignores the impact on waterfowl. It leads me to the conclusion that the federal government is a liar.”

What happens next?

Following the two panels, committee members expressed possible actions they could take, such as educating urban committee members who were not present for the hearing about the crisis, and writing legislation that focuses on protection for landowners as well as fish. Members of the committee agreed to develop a report on hearing findings, which will be shared with other members and forwarded to the Bush administration.

Christine Souza is assistant editor of the California Farm Bureau Federation Ag Alert.