(LONG) Drought of research fouled Klamath
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Sun Feb 17 01:56:15 EST 2002
>From The Oregonian, Feb. 13, 2002, p B1 (Science)
Drought of research fouled Klamath
The decision to cut off irrigation in 2001 was based on the "best
available" science, but crucial information is still unknown
By MICHAEL MILSTEIN, The Oregonian
It was a biological bombshell, perhaps the most pointed scientific
repudiation of an Endangered Species Act decision ever.
But to many who have watched endangered species struggles such as the
one that rocked the Klamath Basin last summer, a national panel's
finding that the federal cutoff of water to Klamath farms lacked
scientific basis was a sad reflection of how such struggles employ
Agency biologists in the middle of such disputes often must make
sudden decisions, in a crisis atmosphere, with lawsuits looming and
without fully understanding nature's workings. Last summer in the
Klamath Basin, all that was true.
It was anything but a situation that fosters the solid, patient and
thoughtful science that makes sense to the public.
"If you want an example of how not to do it, this is it," said
Deborah Brosnan, president of Portland's Sustainable Ecosystems
Institute, a nonprofit scientific group that mediates environmental
disputes. "You had good people trying to do their best in a very
difficult situation, and the public ends up wondering who to believe."
Last summer, Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked the National
Academy of Sciences to appoint an independent panel of experts to
review the federal decision to cut back irrigation water to Klamath
Basin farms. The panel concluded last week that the agencies that had
reserved the water for fish instead of farms did not know enough to
say the water would do the fish any good.
Another conclusion was inescapable: The finding would have been more
useful much sooner, when it might have helped the biologists who last
spring had just weeks to decide how much water fish needed during one
of the worst droughts the Klamath Basin had ever seen.
"It would have helped make the gaps and risks involved much more
apparent," said Brosnan, who advocates wider public discussion of
science before such decisions. "The community would have felt more
confidence that they knew what was going on."
Instead, it came long after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
the National Marine Fisheries Service had concluded that the fish
needed almost all the water. It came after farms went dry, after angry
farmers pried open canal headgates and after lawsuits and politial
The science panel's finding left farmers feeling that they had lost
crops for no reason. It left tribes and environmentalists struggling
to point out that the Klamath Basin still faces serious ecological
trouble, and agency biologists facing a storm blowing toward them and
the Endangered Species Act.
It also left the credibility of federal agencies in tatters. Norton
voiced concerns about "flaws" in the decision, even as biologists in
the field were ordered not to speak publicly about the reasoning
"It's not that the findings were in error, but they came out too late
in a way that pulls the rug out from under the agencies," Brosnan
said. "Maybe that's the tragedy: Everbody ended up a victim, even the
science and the scientists."
The National Academy of Sciences panel did not fault the federal
biologists as much as it found that they had been walking a legal
tightrope through a deteriorating ecosystem without a safety net.
"They basically were trying to follow their mandate to take a
cautionary approach for fish, without a whole lot of good information
to go on," said Eugene Helfman, a University of Georgia professor who
served on the panel.
Scientists have studied the broad, arid Klamath Basin for decades,
but they admit that they still don't understand it. They know that
water carrying high levels of nutrients off grazing lands above Upper
Klamath Lake feeds toxic algae blooms in the lake, but they don't know
exactly what triggers the blooms.
They know that the blooms can kill Lost River suckers and short-nose
suckers, both endangered species, but they do not know how many
suckers there are.
They know that coho salmon downstream in the Klamath River need
water, but they do not know whether warm water flowing out of Upper
Klamath Lake in midsummer harms the salmon more than it helps them.
"Without that kind of information, it becomes very hard to draw any
clear conclusions," said Richard Adams, an Oregon State University
professor who was the only social scientist on the National Academy
Last spring, scientists with the Fish and Wildlife Service and
National Marine Fisheries Service did not have that kind of
information. What they did have was the federal Endangered Species
Act, which requies them to use the "best available" science and
aggressively protect such imperiled species as suckers and salmon.
For years, the biologists ahd called on the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation to screen irrigation canals so they would not suck fish
out of lakes and rivers, and to repair wetlands that filter water and
serve as nurseries for fish. They had also urged more research on fish
populations and numbers.
The screens remain absent, however, and studies have come slowly, if
Neither side supported
As a severe drought bore down on the Klamath Basin, the biologists
had to rule on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could draw down the
lake and river as it usually would. In its report, the National
Academy panel said that would have been wrong, too, because it would
expose the fish to "unknown" risks.
The biologists concluded that all they could do to aid fish in the
short term was mandate more water in Upper Klamath Lake and the
Klamath River, which is what they did. They reasoned that more water
in the lake would dilute the chance of fish kills, although fish kills
have been known to happen during high-water years.
That left little water for farms that for decades had received it
from Reclamation's Klamath Project, and little for the national
wildlife refuges that depend on runoff from farms.
"We're right where we have been with other endangered species cases,
with one agency saying it's going to keep on doing its thing and
another agency finally throwing up its hands," said Pat Parenteau, a
law professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in the
Endangered Species Act.
It was a desperate, last-ditch ruling driven by past inaction in a
region where federal agencies and many others are at odds. In that
way, it more reflected the basin's division - between agencies that
protect wildlife and those that serve farms; between farmers who want
water for crops and tribes who want it for fish - than any mutual
vision for mending them.
Even now, scientists ay it is unclear whether the water withheld from
farms helped the protected fish last year. The National Academy panel
said the water is so foul it might have actually hurt them.
Calls for big-picture approach
"There needs to be a coordination of the whole institutional
structure down there," Adams said. "How did we get into this and end
up with solutions that are so inflexible, like we had last year?
That's the real problem."
For Mark Stern, a Nature Conservancy ecologist who has worked for
years to restore Klamath wetlands, the water cutoff focused so much on
the short term it neglected the long term. The area could have been
better served, he said, had some water been released to farms with a
mandate for wetland restoration that would boost water quality and
fish habitat over many years to come.
"That approach would have helped us address the problem and helped us
out of the box," he said, "instead of just cutting of the project and
leaving us right back where we started from."
But the Endangered Species Act focuses on individual species, not the
big picture. Lawsuits over the northern spotted owl similarly brought
Northwest logging to a standstill until the Northwest Forest Plan of
1994 orchestrated a regionwide approach to logging and wildlife
The Klamath Basin may need a similar approach, Parenteau said.
"You're bound to get bad decisions if you're looking at issues
narrowly," he said, "because the system is much bigger than that and
has much larger problems."
Comment by poster: there are some who consider this situation to be a
failing by the agencies involved. I view it as the opposite: it is the
beginning of wisdom. What appears to be contradictory for some is
actually the reasonable discussion of facts. With new data, theories
of survival strategies must be also revised.
Daniel B. Wheeler
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