Overview - Klamath Basin Management

During the spring and summer of 2001, the Klamath basin in northern California was hit with a drought that had severe consequences for farming communities in the region. This drought came at a time when the National Marine Fisheries Service had just issued a biological opinion indicating that, based on reviews of the available scientific literature, reduced levels of Upper Klamath Lake, as allowed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath River Basin irrigation project, would endanger the Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast (SONCC) evolutionarily significant unit (ESU) of the Coho Salmon (Onchorhynus Kisutch), and issued a Reasonable Prudent Alternative (RPA) declaration limiting water flows by the USBR for the drought conditions of year 2001. At about the same time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a separate but similar biological opinion and RPA stating that reduced Klamath Basin flows would severely impact populations of the endangered Shortnose Sucker (Chasmistes Brevirostris) and the Lost River Sucker (Deltistes Luxatus) which was once abundant enough in these waters to support significant commercial and recreational fisheries.

The decision touched off a firestorm of controversy in the region, including civil unrest, vandalism of flood gate controls by angry mobs, and claims from the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal and other ultra-conservative forums of "rural cleansing" by "rabid enviros". It's noteworthy that nearly all of the commentary from these groups concentrated on the suckers, which are widely regarded by the public as a coarse fish, and carefully avoided any mention of the Coho Salmon which enjoys a reputation as a highly sought-after food and game fish and an enduring symbol of the quality of life on the Pacific Coast. Hysteria aside, the water limitations did severely impact farm communities in the basin creating a crisis which lead the Dept. of the Interior to petition the National Research Council to investigate the scientific basis for these claims.

This page links the two NRC reports. The first is the year 2002 interim report. The second, which largely agrees with the first, is the year 2004 final report. Together these reports present one of the most complete reviews of the state of scientific knowledge on the Klamath basis ecosystem and its threatened fish and wildlife populations. The NRC concluded that there was substantial scientific support for all aspects of both biological opinions and RPA's except the necessity of increased minimum flows of the Klamath River and water levels of Klamath Lake above the low flows observed over the last 10 years, which they said were not yet supported by the currently available scientific evidence.

The first report was widely hailed by various ultra-conservative groups as a victory against environmentalists and governmental regulation. However, as is so often the case with these groups and their record of scholarship the shrill commentary that ensued told only part of the story. The NRC had been tasked with reviewing the scientific evidence for the two biological opinions and subsequent RPA's regarding the Coho Salmon and the two species of sucker indigenous to the Klamath Basin, and their report documented only the body of scientific evidence available for observed water flows in previous years. The NRC committee stated only that no evidence existed which suggested that the low water flows that had been observed in the previous 10 years would harm Coho Salmon, Lost River Sucker, and Shortnose Sucker populations. However, they did clearly state that there was a considerable body of evidence to suggest that, in general, low flows of water can harm anadromous fish runs and that their conclusions should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of unrestricted low flows below those that had been observed for this basin. They also stated that the water flows that were being requested by the USBR for year 2002 in the Klamath Basin would probably reduce water flows below those observed in the historical record, that this might well harm these fish populations, and also that their conclusions did not prove that low flows were not harmful to these fish—only that the available evidence did not yet prove this.

The NRC clearly stated that their conclusions were restricted to the populations referenced in the USFWS and NMFS biological opinions and RPA's regarding the Coho Salmon and the two species of sucker, and specifically did not address the many other species that inhabit this region, including important ESU's of steelhead (onchorhynchus mykiss) and chinook salmon (onchorhynchus tsawytscha). Nor did the report address the impact of reduced water levels on the rich diversity of waterfowl, eagles, and mammalian fauna that depend on the region. As might be expected, this conclusion is considerably different than how it was represented by ultra-conservative special interests.

Shortly after the interim report was issued in 2002, the USBR restored full water access to irrigators and other water use interests. Agribusiness, resource use groups, and other ultra-conservative special interests were delighted and wasted no time in draining the river to unprecedented lows while gloating of their great victory over the "rabid enviros" in various conservative forums. However, no sooner had this decision been made and the river drained, than in September of the same year a massive fish kill occurred in the Klamath Basin which resulted in a final death toll of over 33,000 fish, making it one of the largest single fish kills in American history. Most of the fish killed were Chinook salmon and Steelhead (which were not addressed in the NRC report). The remainder of the kill was Coho Salmon, which were. Over 70 percent of these fish were wild run fish that are crucial to the genetic viability of these fish runs (to get an idea of the magnitude of this kill, consider that the forecasted fall chinook returns to this system for year 2003 are in the neighborhood of only 113,000 fish total. Given that the bulk of the 33,000 fish killed were chinook, this die-off may have eliminated as many as one-fourth of the entire year 2002 wild chinook run in a matter of days).

Later investigation by fisheries biologists revealed that the kill was related to the rapid spread of Ceratomyxa Shasta worm disease exacerbated by a combination of low flows and related warm water temperatures, just as the NRC report had said might happen if flows dropped below historic levels. As might be expected, the USBR defended their decision to limit flows to the degree they did, the Interior Dept. had no comment at the time the fish kill was reported—and least surprisingly of all, ultra-conservative groups loudly denied that the low flows had anything to do with the fish kill despite the scientific findings regarding Ceratomyxa Shasta, warm temperatures, and low flows.

As it turns out, the selfishness of the Far-Right throughout this whole controversy went even father than anyone at the time realized. It now appears that the Bush Administration's Klamath Basin water policies were pushed through with deliberate deception. In November 2002 the Wall Street Journal revealed that Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, sought to manipulate Klamath water policy by personally encouraging federal resource agency officials to side with irrigation interests in the Klamath, believing an agriculture-friendly outcome would bolster 2002 re-election chances for Oregon's Republican Senator Gordon Smith, and tip Oregon's seven electoral college votes to Bush in 2004. The information was received from an employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service who reported that the agency had been pressured to accept the plan despite updated scientific findings that emphasized the risks to ESA protected fish runs from the requested reduced flows (the employee in question has since sought protection under the Federal Whistleblower's Act). In addition, an extensive year 2002 economic study by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that based on the relative strength of recreation and commercial and sportfishing economies to those of Klamath basin agribusiness, returning water to the Klamath River for fish and recreation would bring millions more dollars to the local economy than sending it to irrigators.

Fearing the political and economic repercussions of its science for their friends, the Bush Administration deliberately buried this report until the Wall Street Journal got a hold of it broke the story in November 2002. It is particularly noteworthy that it was the Wall Street Journal that first uncovered this incident, as they have a history of antienvironmental and pro-business bias. In this case, the evidence appears to have been so flagrant that even they felt compelled to report it! Massachusetts' Senator John Kerry formally requested an investigation of these allegations by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Inspector General. In the summer of 2003, federal District Court Judge Sandra Armstrong declared the Administration's Klamath water plan "arbitrary and capricious," in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and ordered the plan re-written.

As so often happens, this whole tragedy provides yet another example of how far some people will go to protect their own interests or gain votes. When our society tolerates this kind of behavior our nation's natural treasures suffer and public well-being suffers. This should remind us that hysteria and selfishness are either a substitute for reason, or justification for the deliberate falsification of scientific evidence.

Note:   The original Wall Street Journal story is not accessible by web link, as a subscription is required. However, a free two week trial subscription that will allow the article to be searched and read can be obtained here.


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