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The Obama administration and the Klamath River basin

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felicep | Jan 21, 2009 11:45 AM

In his inaugural address to the nation Barak Obama said: “We will restore science to its rightful place.” This is a reference to pledges made during the campaign which were directed primarily toward the environmental community. Environmentalists have been outraged by Bush Administration interference in endangered species, clean air and clean water decisions. These Bush Administration misdeeds became high profile when they received major media attention.  Reference to them in the Inaugural Address signals that restoring scientific integrity in environmental decision making is a primary and initial “pay out” which the Obama Administration will make to the environmental community. We can expect big changes at EPA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But how far will this pledge extend? The misuse and abuse of science was not limited to the issues which received major media attention and actions which ignored or adjusted science to conform to political desires were not practiced only by Bush appointees. Many line officials in federal agencies ignored or “adjusted” scientific information during the past eight years in order to do the bidding of the Bush appointees. These officials are still in their jobs.

One example of a Bush Initiative in which science has been a casualty is the Klamath River Basin. After a high-profile and controversial irrigation shut-off for endangered fish and a massive kill of adult salmon the following year several Bush Secretaries pledged to “fix” the Klamath.

The main result of that initiative is the Klamath Settlement Group and the main products of that group are a Klamath Water Deal  (the proposed Klamath River Basin Restoration Agreement) and an “Agreement in Principle”  to consider removing four of the five mainstem Klamath River dams.  

The Klamath Water Deal promises to restore the Klamath River, Klamath salmon and Klamath communities, and to end water conflicts, by dividing Klamath waters between fish and farms, providing federal funding for fisheries and habitat restoration and giving a variety of subsidies to irrigation interests. The proposal has the support of the California and Oregon governors and three of the five Klamath River Basin federally recognized tribes.

According to its detractors,  however, the Klamath Water Deal cannot deliver what it promises. The heart of the Water Deal is a division of water between fish and farms. But according to a recent independent science report from one of the nation's most prestigious science bodies that division is based on incomplete science, that is, on a river flow needs assessments which treat the Klamath River as if it were “the Upper Basin and a gutter to the sea.” The independent scientists recommended a “basin-wide” flow assessment in order to properly determine flows needed in the Klamath and major tributaries. But no such assessment is in the proposed Water Deal. Drought planning and assessing climate change impacts are two other science recommendations which the Klamath Water Deal defers to a future time.

As for the Agreement in Principle on Klamath River dams, it too appears to show the effects of the Bush Administration’s antipathy for science. While it has been hailed by some environmental organizations as a major step toward dam removal, others, including my blog on Klamath River issues, claim it would make dam removal less likely by basing the decision whether or not to remove the dams on economic rather than scientific criteria.

Will Obama appointees who inherit the Bush Klamath Initiative insist that recommendations of the National Research Council’s independent scientists are incorporated within the Water Deal? Will they reinstate science as the criteria by which the future of the Klamath dams is determined? Time will tell.  

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