GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Future decisions on sharing water between Klamath Basin farmers and endangered fish will take into account criticism by the National Academy of Sciences of last year's irrigation cutbacks, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Monday.
Norton had initiated the review by a panel of experts, which concluded there was no scientific basis for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to require minimum water levels last year to protect endangered suckers and threatened coho salmon during a drought.
"I am concerned by the weaknesses revealed by the National Academy of Sciences study," Norton said in a statement from Washington, D.C. "By challenging the analysis, the NAS study will affect our decision-making process for this year and future years."
Norton called on the new director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Steve Williams, and the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, John Keys, to evaluate the academy conclusions and report to her within 10 days.
How the academy's review will affect water allocations for the Klamath Project won't become clear until early April, when the Bureau of Reclamation is due to issues its operations plan for the Klamath Project, which serves 225,000 acres straddling the Oregon-California border and amounts to about half the irrigated farmland in the basin.
Before that can happen, Fish and Wildlife must issue a new biological opinion considering whether irrigation plans will jeopardize the survival of endangered shortnosed suckers and Lost River suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the project's primary reservoir. NMFS must do the same for threatened coho salmon downstream in the Klamath River downstream.
With few options available to them in the short term for dealing with poor water quality during a drought, both agencies increased minimum water levels for fish last year, leaving little for farmers. That led to protests and rallies on behalf of farmers, lawsuits over the water allocations, legislative proposals and $134 million in economic losses.
Based on the report's criticism of a lack of hard data, NMFS will take a new look at the models used to analyze water temperatures in the Klamath River, said David Cottingham, deputy director of the agency's office of protected resources.
"We were surprised by some of the findings, but at the same time feel like they supported some of our findings," he said.
During the summer, when water can reach temperatures lethal to salmon, the young fish need enough water in the mainstem of the Klamath River to reach the cold water flowing out of tributaries, Cottingham said.
Farmers felt some vindication that what they have been saying along was scientifically valid, but still have no guarantee that they will have full irrigation deliveries this year, said Dan Kleppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.
"There is a glimmer of hope here," Kleppen said. "If the common sense comes out, this NAS report can prevail and provide some more flexibility for Klamath Project operations."
But farmers are still too gun-shy from past conflicts to be reaching out to other interests for long-term solutions, he added.
"It needs to be emphasized the report is also critical of the Bureau of Reclamation's management proposals and is not a blank check to take unlimited amounts of water from Upper Klamath Lake," said Carl Ullman, an attorney for the Klamath Tribes, which hold the suckers sacred.
"It emphasizes that it's preliminary and will probably change as new data is added and existing data is reviewed more thoroughly"
No matter how the water allocations shake out between farms and fish, there will be lawsuits challenging them, said Kleppen and environmental consultant Andy Kerr.
"It ain't over," Kerr said. "What it shows is more scientific research is necessary. But in the end where do you place the burden of proof? Extinction is irreversible."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was angry that last year's water cutbacks were made on the basis of insufficient scientific data, but hoped the academy's report would help a $175 million package to restore the Klamath Basin ecosystem get through Congress.
Widespread restoration of the Klamath Basin ecosystem will be necessary for long-term resolution of the water conflict, said Peter Moyle, a University of California at Davis fisheries biologist who served on the committee that produced the report.
"Ultimately, things have got to change up there," he said. "They are certainly in a tough place."