Klamath Basin Water Fight May Have Hurt Fish

A House Resources subcommittee will hear testimony next month from experts who say that shutting off irrigation water to Klamath Basin farmers last summer may not only have hurt the region's economy, but also may have hurt the fish.

The Water and Power Subcommittee will hold a hearing March 7 on the findings from a National Academy of Science report that found insufficient evidence to justify shutting off the water to Klamath Basin, said Rep. Greg Walden.

Faced with drought conditions in 2001, federal biologists recommended that water be diverted from irrigation canals to the river to help sucker fish and coho salmon listed as an endangered species.

The move angered the 1,000 farmers in the region who, in defiance of laws, turned on the floodgates and created body chains to prevent federal officials from turning the water off again.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton ruled in July that Klamath Lake would supply 75,000 acre feet of water to the farmers, not enough to save the 2001 growing season, but enough to save livestock and topsoil for the next year.

Walden, a Republican who represents Klamath, said he was shocked by the NAS report, because it showed that coho salmon may actually have been harmed by increasing the flow of water in the Klamath River. The NAS report found that there is no link between water levels and mortality rates of sucker fish and reservoir water could "equal or exceed the lethal temperatures for coho salmon in the warmest months."

“Had we not gotten an outside review of the science and the decisions leading to the water shut-off, the federal government would have continued down the wrong road. Now we find out that higher lake levels don’t help suckers and higher stream flows may actually kill coho salmon," Walden said.

Walden said he hopes the hearing will lead to action on legislation he's sponsoring to require peer review of government science reports.

Retiring Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, chairman of the committee, said he hoped the findings would bring a final demise to the Endangered Species Act.

“A handful of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service bureaucrats withheld desperately needed water from farmers in the Klamath Basin last summer. Now we find out that that decision was based on sloppy science and apparent guesswork. I am appalled. They made decisions that devastated the economy of an entire region and they literally backed that decision up with armed federal agents," Hansen said.