Farmers in the Klamath Basin found vindication in a National Research Council report, released Oct. 21, which says the solution to Klamath’s protracted water struggles lies not in irrigation shutoffs but in sweeping repairs to an out-of-balance landscape.

In 2001, federal biologists reserved so much water for fish farmers nearly rioted. But there is no evidence the water did the fish any good, said the report, which was compiled by a panel of 12 scientists assembled at the request of Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

“There was one knob (federal agencies) could turn, and that was the one on the (irrigation) project,” says Jeffrey Mount, who served on the panel. “The committee doesn’t believe that will solve the problem.”

Secretary Norton agreed that “the recovery of coho salmon and the two (species of) suckers cannot be achieved through actions primarily focused on the Klamath Project but require a broader approach.” The report also said diversion of water to farms last year cannot by itself be blamed for last fall’s historic die-off of more than 33,000 salmon and steelhead in the Klamath (HCN, 6/23/03: Sound science goes sour).

But the panel also echoed calls by tribes and environmental groups for the repair of eroding riverbanks, dammed streams and other obstacles to recovery of the fish. The report said that federal agencies must remove dams that impede fish migration, restore vital wetlands, and return clean, cool water to rivers and lakes.

“If there’s one central theme,” Mount says, “it’s that the failures of the past are the result of not taking an ecosystem approach.”