NAS debunks Klamath water shutoff

Published April 1, 2002

The federal shutoff of irrigation water last year to farmers around Upper Klamath Lake on the Oregon-California border not only was unnecessary to preserve allegedly endangered suckerfish and salmon, but likely harmed the fish, according to a report submitted on January 31 by the National Academy of Sciences submitted to the federal government.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation on February 27 announced plans to release irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake to area farmers in time for the 2002 growing season.

The 26-page NAS report concluded there was “no substantial scientific foundation” for claims that Upper Klamath Lake water levels need to be kept high to dilute the runoff of agricultural and other sediments into the lake. To the contrary, the report concluded the shutoff of water to local farmers likely harmed allegedly endangered fish by artificially raising water temperatures, especially in and around cold springs to which fish retreat to avoid the summer heat. The NAS report noted the best-ever year for Klamath fish populations occurred during a low-water year.

2,000 jobs, $130 million lost

The battle over Upper Klamath Lake water has been raging since April 2001, when the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered irrigation water cut off to 1,400 area farmers who relied on the water for their livelihoods.

The action struck many observers as especially callous because the farmers were descendants of World War I veterans who had obtained and worked the land at the inducement of the federal government. After defending their country overseas, the veterans were promised title to the land and perpetual water rights as part of a federal plan to promote agriculture in the region.

Last year’s water cutoff wreaked economic havoc among the veterans’ descendants and throughout the Upper Klamath Lake region. The loss of water cost the regional economy 2,000 jobs and more than $130 million, according to a joint report by Oregon State University and the University of California at Berkeley.

But the economic toll conveyed only part of the story. People who have lived on and worked the land for generations were forced to sell or abandon their property in the face of bankruptcy and hunger caused by the water shutoff.

“Sloppy science, apparent guesswork”

“We are ecstatic about the study, but the problem I have is that I lost a lot of good neighbors and friends, including my next-door neighbor who lost his farm of 30 years,” said area resident Bob Gasser. “Incomplete science took his livelihood, his home, and his children’s education.”

Farm owners were not the only ones harmed by the water cutoff. A local nurse-practitioner told of Hispanic agricultural workers who went days at a time without feeding their families.

Outrage over the water shutoff flared again upon word that last year’s government action, together with all its life-wrecking consequences, was wholly unnecessary.

“A handful of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service bureaucrats withheld desperately needed water from farmers in the Klamath Basin last summer,” said Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah). “Now we find out that decision was based on sloppy science and apparent guesswork. I am appalled. They made decisions that devastated the economy of an entire region–and they literally backed that decision up with armed federal agents.”

Added Hansen, “The latest travesty in the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act is one more nail in the coffin of that broken law. The ESA has become a wrecking ball in this country, devastating dreams, careers, personal finances, and regional economies.”

“Had we not gotten an outside review of the science and the decisions leading to the water shutoff, the federal government would have continued down the wrong road,” observed Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon). “Now we find out that higher lake levels don’t help suckers and higher stream flows may actually kill coho salmon.”

Legal battles intensify

The Bureau of Reclamation’s February 27 decision to restore water to area farmers capped a month of frenzied activity regarding the Upper Klamath Lake region. Immediately after the NAS submitted its findings regarding the water shutoff, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Klamath Basin coho salmon.

The group had recently filed a similar lawsuit regarding coastal coho salmon, which met with mixed results. Pacific argued, and a federal district court agreed, that coastal coho salmon were not endangered in light of millions of hatchery-born salmon released into the wild. However, a federal appeals court reversed the decision, banning hatchery-born fish from the coastal coho salmon count.

While the Pacific Legal Foundation challenged the appropriateness of listing Klamath coho salmon as endangered, environmental activist groups prepared their own legal strategy regarding the salmon. On the day Reclamation announced its plans to release irrigation water, 13 fishing and environmental activist groups filed a petition to intervene in the Pacific Legal Foundation’s suit.

The 13 groups argued that the defendants in the Pacific lawsuit, the National Marine Fisheries Service, could not be trusted to mount a vigorous and effective defense of the Klamath salmon listing. “We cannot allow wild salmon and the protections they need to be used as pawns in a broader political game, in the Klamath, the courts, or anywhere,” said Jeff Curtis of Trouts Unlimited.

Dismissing the harm suffered by area residents, Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations added, “This delisting lawsuit is just a thinly veiled attempt by industrial agribusiness to throw out protections for salmon so they can continue to pollute streams and dry up rivers with impunity.”

“It’s absurd to say we don’t need to protect wild salmon simply because hatcheries can churn out millions of fish in concrete tanks,” argued Michael Mayer of Earthjustice.

While the status of Klamath coho salmon plays out in the courts, area farmers still must pray for significant rains this year. Although the Bureau of Reclamation has committed to releasing water prior to the April growing season, it has not committed to specific amounts of water.

“It’s water,” said John Keys, head of the Reclamation Bureau. “There are never guarantees with a natural resource.”

While refusing to guarantee enough water for local irrigation needs, Keys did predict farmers will be able to grow their crops this year “if local weather patterns and water levels hold.”