Klamath Basin II: The saga continues

National Academy of Sciences study produces more controversy in Oregon


Time isn't always a healer. Sometimes, it allows wounds to fester. So appears to be the case in Oregon's Klamath Basin. Last spring, federal wildlife agencies determined that in order to protect three species of endangered fish, water that normally would be diverted to 1,400 family farmers would stay in the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake. In the wake of that decision, which was upheld by a federal judge, a political war broke out between the farming community and the tribes and fishers that depend on healthy coho and sucker fish (HCN, 8/13/01: No refuge in the Klamath Basin).

Nearly a year later, tensions in the basin are still running sky-high. As recently as January, three white men were arrested for harassing Native Americans in the basin. In an hour-long shooting spree, the men fired shotguns at signs and buildings and yelled "sucker lovers" while driving past the offices of the Klamath Tribe.

Everyone hoped that a National Academy of Sciences investigation, requested by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, would defuse the situation and provide some clear direction for how the agencies should proceed this coming summer. But in early February, an interim draft of the much-anticipated report, which considered the science behind the agency's recommendations to shut off water to farmers, was leaked to the Washington Post several days before its scheduled release. Instead of healing the basin, the report and the ensuing coverage have poured salt into its wounds.

Sounds of science

"The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that federal biologists had no scientific justification for their efforts to protect endangered fish by withholding water from farmers in the drought-ravaged Klamath Basin," reads the first sentence of the Washington Post story by Michael Grunwald.

The Academy's report, written by a 12-member team that includes scientists, economists and sociologists, found that the real problem in the basin is water quality - not water quantity. Providing additional bad water may actually harm fish. While it is only an interim report - a more exhaustive study is due March 2003 - Norton told the Post that "the (interim) study will affect our decision-making process for this year and future years."

Farmers in the basin reacted with elation. "This vindicates us," says James L. Moore, an alfalfa farmer. "The Academy admitted that taking our water away last year was totally wrong."

Environmentalists and fish advocates immediately criticized the release of the report as a political move.

"It was leaked with the administration's spin, with the statement that this shows fish don't really need water. The report is much less straightforward than all that," says Reed Benson of the environmental group WaterWatch. "It doesn't say fish don't need water; it just says that the river and lake levels aren't a silver bullet."

Independent scientists, environmentalists and tribal officials speculate that the administration has gagged federal biologists because they might expose flaws in the National Academy's report.

"The Academy failed to analyze the existing information properly," says Jacob Kann, an independent aquatic ecologist who has studied the Upper Klamath Lake ecosystem for 15 years. "It made some erroneous conclusions."

Kann notes that Academy scientists determined that more water in the lake doesn't necessarily help suckers, because the fish flourished in a year when water levels were low. But the Academy failed to recognize that lake temperatures that summer were the coldest on record, which delayed toxic algae blooms, creating better water quality. The Academy scientists also found that when lake elevation was relatively high, fish died. Kann says those years were also the least windy, which prevented the lake from mixing and diluting the toxic ammonia.

The Academy didn't have enough time to do a thorough analysis, says Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. They tried to review over 10 years of science in two months, says Spain, adding that all the people on the committee have full-time jobs.

While committee scientist Gene Helfman admits that "nobody felt comfortable with the amount of time we had," he says the team wouldn't have issued an interim report unless it was confident about the findings.

"People really take these meetings incredibly seriously," says Helfman, an ecologist at the University of Georgia. "When you wind up on one of these committees, you're affecting the course of science in the country."

Helfman and other Academy scientists say that the way the report was spun in the media isn't an accurate depiction of the committee's intent.

"The early headlines were misleading and not analytical," says William Lewis, author of the report and an environmental scientist and professor at the University of Colorado. "We're not saying we don't need to support fish; we're saying let's go ahead and do other things. If (the agencies) continue to believe higher lake levels are beneficial, then they need to marshal more evidence."

"We did not say it was junk science," adds Helfman. "It's not a victory for farmers; it's not a victory for anybody."

Those left holding the bag

The report has shone the spotlight once again on the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which are responsible for ensuring the Endangered Species Act is upheld in Bureau of Reclamation projects. As it did last year, the Bureau has issued an irrigation plan that makes little provision for endangered fish. And once again, the Service and NMFS face a deadline for making their recommendations.

"It's kind of an awesome responsibility. How do you make a decision when you don't have all the information?" asks a federal scientist. "The Academy report doesn't help. This is incredibly frustrating and stressful."

Secretary Norton has asked the heads of both the Bureau and the Fish and Wildlife Service for suggestions on how to proceed in light of the Academy's findings, but time is short. The ESA allows the agencies up to 130 days to respond to the Bureau's plan, but irrigation season begins in early April. The Bureau has still not provided the wildlife agencies with its plan for water deliveries.

The agencies are also hamstrung by citizens' groups. If the Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS don't require the Bureau to provide additional water for fish, a coalition of wildlife advocates, fishers and tribes is already threatening to sue. If that happens, there could be a situation nearly identical to last summer, in which a federal judge decides policy for the basin.

Mother Nature, though, may trump all politics: The basin's snowpack is 120 percent of average, up dramatically from last year's 21 percent. That additional moisture may mean that there will be enough water for both farmers and fish, at least for now.

Rebecca Clarren is HCN's associate editor.


  • Suzanne van Drunick, study director, the National Academy of Sciences, 202/334-1887, or read the 26-page report at www.nationalacademies.org;
  • Patricia Foulk, Fish and Wildlife Service, 916/414-6566;
  • Jeffrey McCracken, Bureau of Reclamation, 916/978-5100.
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