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Good science, peer review vital for ESA

September 30, 2005

When the Klamath Reclamation Project was shut down in 2001 and the water normally used for farmers' fields went to fish instead, the blame went to the Endangered Species Act and the government agencies that enforce it.

Those agencies - the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service - shut the project down on short notice to growers in April of that year so more water could be saved for suckers upriver and coho salmon downstream. Project farmers paid the price.

The Project is administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, which, we suspect, would have found a way to share that year's water shortage without a total cutoff to farmers, if it hadn't had a legal gun to its head. It took the intervention of high-level Bush administration officials to restore some of the water later in the season, but a lot of damage had been done by then.

The event focused attention on the Endangered Species Act as perhaps no other issue had since the debate over the snail darter and the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee more than two decades prior. After a dispute through much of the 1970s, Congress approved an exemption for the dam, and the project moved ahead despite the tiny fish's status under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. More populations of the fish were found after the exemption was approved.

Perhaps a little better science in advance would have prevented all of that 1970s turmoil. That's one of the key issues involved in a proposal to rewrite the Endangered Species Act into what's known as the Threatened and Endangered Species Act of 2005. The rewrite is now in Congress.

After the Basin's water cutoff in 2001, a review by a National Research Council panel of scientists said the decision couldn't be justified by the available science.

The rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, which has been approved by the House of Representatives and now goes to the Senate, puts an emphasis on making decisions based on the "best available science" that's also been subject to peer review. "Peer review" means that other scientists with credentials would evaluate the basis used for proposing species as endangered or threatened, along with reviewing the programs to proposed to improve their status.

The new law would instruct the secretary of interior to determine what constitutes "the best available science," a proposition that environmental organizations find upsetting since the secretary is a presidential appointment and a good grounding in science is not legally required for the position.

Given what happened in the Klamath Basin in 2001, though, leaving the decision up to the professionals in government agencies is no guarantee that the right thing will get done.

The emphasis on peer-reviewed science is something the Endangered Species Act needs. It's essential because not only should it improve the accuracy of the findings, it should make the public more willing to accept the human accommodation that might be necessary to rescue a species.

Preservation of habitat also has to be at the heart of the Endangered Species Act. If the ability to preserve habitat is lost, the act will have no meaning. Anything that emerges from Congress needs to include a reasonable way to save habitat.

The 2001 water crisis didn't need to happen. Government agencies looked to the Klamath Project - as they have done so often - as their only answer to a drought because the Project had the only spigot they could turn off. A lot of people got hurt, and that's something that better science could have prevented.

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