California Report Supports Critics of Water Diversion

NEW YORK TIMES 1/7/03

By DEAN E. MURPHY

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 6 .. A new state report on the Klamath

River supports contentions by fishermen, environmentalists and

several American Indian tribes that 33,000 fish died on the lower

river last fall because the Bush administration allowed too much

water to be diverted to farmers.

 

The report by biologists at the California Department of Fish and

Game is expected to figure prominently in a lawsuit against the

federal government that seeks to reduce water supplies to farmers

before the spring irrigation season, which begins in April.

 

Lawyers for both sides are scheduled to appear on Thursday in federal

court in Oakland, Calif. A similar legal challenge against the

Department of the Interior, which regulates the river's flows, failed

last year, but the extensive die-off has given opponents of the federal

policy new resolve.

 

"This time around, Exhibit A will be 33,000 dead spawners," said

Glen H. Spain, the Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast

Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "The water has been

overcommitted and the demand has to be brought back into balance

with the supply."

 

The state report, which was released on Friday, warns that if

conditions on the river remain the same and water flows are not

increased, the Klamath could experience another major fish kill. Last

year's die-off was the largest ever in California of adult chinook

salmon, which accounted for about 95 percent of the dead fish. A

smaller number of coho salmon and steelhead trout also died.

 

One author of the report, Neil Manji, a fish biologist in Redding,

Calif., said the study was not intended "to point fingers" at the Bush

administration. Instead, he said, it was meant to make the case for

having more water in the river as "a common sense approach" to

managing the fisheries' needs.

 

The report says that of all the factors that contributed to the die-off,

from the large number of fish to the presence of bacterial pathogens

in the water, "flow is the only factor that can be controlled to any

degree."

 

"Man can only do so much at this particular time," Mr. Manji said. "I

think every scientist would agree that increased flows would reduce

the potential for a big kill."

 

Last March, in a reversal of a curtailment the year before, Interior

Secretary Gale A. Norton presided over a ceremony at Klamath Falls,

Ore., in which water was released to farmers that had been held back

because of concern about endangered fish. The policy switch was

denounced by fishermen, Indian tribes and many environmentalists,

who vowed to fight it and a new 10-year management plan for the

river that would keep water flowing to the farmers.

 

Kristen Boyles, a lawyer with Earthjustice, an environmental legal

group that represents the opponents of the administration's policy,

said the state report contributes to a growing consensus among

scientists that diversions from the river for agriculture are harmful.

The 230-mile Klamath River, which flows from Oregon to the Pacific

Ocean near Redwood National Park in California, supplies irrigation

water to about 200,000 acres of farmland through the federal

Klamath Reclamation Project.

 

Last October, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service

sought federal whistle-blower protection after claiming his agency

was pressured by the Bush administration to accept water flows in

the 10-year plan that were too low to support fish. The biologist,

Michael Kelly, said the low flows threatened coho salmon, which are

protected by the Endangered Species Act.

 

Jeffrey S. McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation,

the Interior Department agency that administers federal water

policies, defended the decision last year to divert more water to

farmers, saying it was based on advice from federal biologists. He said

a decision about this year's flows would not be made until studies of

the fish die-off are completed by the United States Fish and Wildlife

Service and the National Academy of Sciences.

 

Mr. McCracken questioned the objectivity of the new report by the

California biologists, since state officials began blaming the federal

government for the fish kill last September, when the fish were still

dying.

 

"The conclusions really aren't a surprise to us, given they arrived at

these same conclusions even before they did the study," he said. "It is

nothing that they haven't already said."

 

Jonathan Birdsong, a spokesman for Representative Mike Thompson

of California, who in October introduced legislation to block the Bush

administration plan for the river, denounced the bureau's attitude

toward the state report.

 

"This administration has always said the best science is in the states,

that the states are closer to the people," Mr. Birdsong said. "The fact

that they are discounting the state experts is a little disheartening. It

is more than that. It is hypocritical."

 

But Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, whose

members farm about 40,000 acres of land irrigated with Klamath

water, said he also viewed the state report with deep suspicion.

 

"All of these things are focused on one thing: to be used as evidence in

court," Mr. Solem said. "I can guarantee this will be regurgitated

many times over and over. It becomes scientific fact just because

they put it out."