AG ALERT ISSUE DATE: NOVEMBER 14, 2001
Science used to cut off water is challenged
By Christine Souza
A tug of war among those who believe protecting fish species requires additional water and Klamath Basin farmers who have suffered loss of livelihood due to a shut off of irrigation deliveries continues as a dozen researchers step in the middle of this continuous struggle over water rights.
A select group of researchers from across the nation met last week during a day-long meeting at the Sacramento Convention Center to listen to scientific data collected by federal government agencies which developed biological assessments and opinions on endangered sucker fish and threatened coho salmon. The biological opinions led to higher lake levels for fish and practically no water for farmers.
“Prior to this meeting, people were somewhat hopeful that maybe, because of the scientific advisory panel and the Academy of Sciences, there would either be new or additional information that would somehow change the biological opinion and my understanding is that is not what is going to occur. They are simply going to look at the information and make a determination as to whether it appears to be sound in its basis and how it was done,” said Bill
Pauli, California Farm Bureau Federation president. “We are certainly going to monitor this carefully to see just what the heck happens. We are going to try to be involved to the extent we can because I think it really starts to set a precedent for what may happen on future similar issues in terms of the panel, so that is significant.”
It is the job of the individuals who comprise the National Research Council committee to review scientific information within a project and produce expert opinions based on that science.
“Our committee has a diversity of expertise and backgrounds. The charge to our committee is to make scientific assessments, technical judgments on opinions and assessments that have been prepared by the federal government agencies,” said Bill Lewis of the University of Colorado who chairs the NRC committee. “Our job as a committee is not to make policy or to make legal judgments, but to make scientific and technical assessments. We have read everything. We have not met yet. We have no opinion whatsoever at this point. We need to learn a lot more before we form opinions.”
Following more than six months of protests by the people of the Klamath Basin compiled with increased national media attention creating sympathy for the farmers, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton requested that the NRC committee review the science used by federal agencies in developing these biological opinions.
“We would like to know, through the work of this panel, that the decisions that we have made relative to the 2001 operations of the Klamath Project were scientifically sound. It is my understanding that they were, but as you are aware, there are many who question the validity of the conclusions of the biological assessment and biological opinions,” said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, U.S. Department of Interior deputy chief of staff. “What we’re trying to shoot for here is certainty, both for the people that have to make economic decisions but also for those who are asked to make decisions that greatly impact people’s lives.”
The NRC committee will assess whether the biological opinions issued by Department of Fish and Game, National Marine Fisheries Service and Bureau of Reclamation, of the effects of Klamath Project operations on species in the Klamath River Basin listed under the Endangered Species Act, including coho salmon and shortnose and Lost River suckers, are consistent with the available scientific information.
The committee will consider hydrologic and other environmental parameters such as water quality and habitat availability affecting those species at critical times in their life cycles, the probable consequences to them of not realizing those environmental parameters, and the inter-relationship of these environmental conditions necessary to recover and sustain the listed species.
Information and details provided in the biological opinions was discussed between committee members and four panels of people representing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, various Klamath tribes, the local fisheries industry and a farmer and water expert representing the Klamath Water Users Association.
Steve Lewis, Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife office project leader, spoke among a panel which focused on the biological opinion of Lost River and shortnose sucker fish. He reminded the committee that the Fish and Wildlife Service must work according to what is required of them by the Endangered Species Act.
“The Endangered Species Act points its primary responsibility for conservation on the agency and it says it very clearly,” Lewis said. “Congress expressly provided that the resulting biological opinion be based on the best science available. Science in many cases ranges from peer review to personal communication. It includes whatever is available. In our biological opinion we cited over 250 references.”
Lewis added that the service recognizes the need for additional information, however they simply used the best information available and are “required to give priority to the needs of the species.”
Donald Reck, a fisheries biologist for NMFS, spoke of coho salmon population estimates and the difficulty that comes with attempting to catch and therefore count adult coho during their spawning migration. During his presentation he was questioned by one committee member.
“That (overhead of data projected on the screen) says to me, you don’t know how many salmon there are, you don’t know what would constitute a viable population, you don’t know the relationship between salmon populations and the flow in the Klamath River, which then says to me you have no idea what is going on with how to make any decisions on flow in the river based on what’s going on with the salmon. Have I misunderstood or have you left something out?,” the committee member said.
Reck replied by pointing out the amount of effort that the NMFS science center spent developing a status review of coho salmon populations.
“It was peer reviewed and they came up with a determination that basically said ‘the fish are threatened’ and I am taking that at its value,” Reck said. “Do we know exactly how many coho return to the Klamath River every year? No. Do we know how many coho salmon return to each tributary? No. Am I comfortable with the amount of information we have on all of this? Absolutely not. But that is sometimes where we live as we implement the Endangered Species Act.”
During a panel discussion by stakeholders, Klamath-area tribe representatives and Pacific Coast salmon fishermen asserted that water diversions for agriculture had greatly impacted Klamath Basin lake and river environments, and therefore that of endangered and threatened fish species which ultimately has had an affect on their livelihoods.
John Crawford, Tulelake farmer and representative of the Klamath Water Users Association, who participated as a panelist during the stakeholders discussion of coho salmon, reminded the committee that thousands of people’s lives and entire communities could be impacted by their ultimate decision.
“Be comprehensive and objective in using all of the materials available to you and come up with a good report that everybody can hang their hat on at the end of the day and the end of this process. We have to ask the right questions scientifically of the right data in order to come up with a kind of peer review that is absolutely necessary in this case,” Crawford said. “There are volumes of science that must be considered and that includes the work of Dave Vogel, Alex Horne, Ken Rybost and others that have been excluded from this process. There are peer reviewed agency reports which were not utilized in the development of these biological opinions and we have conflicting evaluations of the same data that were not used. We have misused science.”
During the open microphone session, Deb Crisp, Tulelake Growers Association executive director, held up two reports that contained peer-reviewed agency data that were not mentioned or utilized in the biological opinions.
“Prepared by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March of 1979, this report identifies conditions that have contributed to the decline of the andronomous fish population in the Klamath River such as
overfishing, logging, the Trinity River diversion Central Valley Project and irrigation diversion from tributaries,” Crisp said. “The other report is the Lower Klamath River Instream Flow Study, by the Fish and Wildlife Service in August of 1994. Two primary reasons for the decline in andromous fisheries in this report are ocean harvest and degradation of habitat in the tributaries to the Lower Klamath River. Klamath Project diversions, Crisp said, are not mentioned in either report.
“I was pleased with the committee’s attentiveness and willingness to listen to all sides of the issue. Presentations were objective, however there was some misinformation and biased information such as flow charts presented by Mike Belchik (senior biologist for the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program and water management and rights protection),” said Crisp. “Hopefully the committee will consider all of the information that has been submitted. If they go through this process according to their ‘state of task,’ the outcome should produce a conclusion that is a reasonable one.”
NRC is expected to provide an interim report to the Department of Interior by Jan. 31, of next year. The dozen-member committee spent Wednesday and Thursday of last week behind closed doors hammering out the framework of its preliminary report. A final report by the NRC is due March 30, 2003.
NRC is one of four organizations which form the private, non-profit corporation the National Academy of Sciences.
Under the terms of its 1863 Act of Incorporation, the National Academy of Sciences is obligated to advise the government without compensation beyond actual expenses. In addition, it also fulfills requests for private industry, foundations and state and local governments.
“If the committee were to address the more pertinent question—whether the species should be listed at all—they would be compelled to find that neither the science nor the law justify the listings,” said Rob
Rivett, Pacific Legal Foundations’s principal environmental attorney. “We believe if the committee objectively evaluates the situation, they can only conclude that the government had no basis to shut off the water.”
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.