February 6, 2002
Last summer, about 1,400 drought-stricken farmers in the Klamath Basin got sucker-punched by scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Marine Fisheries Service - literally. Their irrigation taps were turned off because bureaucrats presumed that any release of water would result in too-low water levels in Klamath Lake and too-slow flows of the Klamath River for the threatened salmon and sucker fish that reside therein. (It wasn't as if the farmers had been suckered into buying bad land - the waterways, which stretch from Oregon into Northern California, they wanted to tap into had been open for nearly 100 years.) Consequently, their harvests failed. Worse, more than 20 farmers are expected to have their lands auctioned off to pay debts, and the regional community lost between $134 million and $200 million. Now it appears that those farmers were sucked dry for no purpose.
According to the interim findings of an astonishingly blunt report released today by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), scientists could find no connection between lake water levels and sucker fish populations, nor could they discover any link between water flow level and salmon numbers. Their report concluded that " extensive field data on the fish and environmental conditions in Upper Klamath Lake do not provide scientific support for the underlying premise [of Fish and Wildlife Service biologists] . . . that higher lake levels will help maintain or lead to the recovery of these two species [coho salmon and suckerfish]. "
That could be in part because no one actually knows how many sucker fish or salmon reside in Klamath Basin. The report noted that " the size of the spawning population [of coho salmon] is unknown, " and " population sizes of endangered suckers . . . are uncertain. " That uncertainty had not been resolved when the water shut-offs took place - instead, federal biologists were working off unquantified declines in fish populations which were due to uncertain mechanisms.
Given those vast uncertainties, it is somewhat astonishing that policy-makers pursued such a course. Yet, since federal biologists had earlier determined that populations of threatened fish would be even more threatened by low water levels, federal policy-makers - ranging from Interior Secretary Gale Norton to the federal marshals guarding irrigation gates - were hooked on the strictures of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The NAS report noted that, " The requirements for survival of the threatened and endangered fishes . . . is not negotiable under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Therefore, if the fishes require more water, the ESA directs that they shall have it. " It is clear from the NAS report that the strictures of the ESA have made suckers of us all.