U.S. Water News Online
GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Operators of an irrigation project
that brought homesteaders to the Klamath Basin are considering going
to the God Squad -- the panel that weighs economics against
extinction -- after biologists declared water as usual for farmers
would bring an end to two species of fish.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has notified the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation that long-term operation of the Klamath Project, which
irrigates 200,000 acres of farmland in southern Oregon and Northern
California, threatens extinction of the Lost River sucker and
shortnosed sucker. The fish were put on the endangered species list
The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies, such as the
Bureau of Reclamation bureau, from doing anything to harm an
The bureau could seek an exemption if it feels it cannot meet Fish
and Wildlife's conditions for protecting the suckers, said Bob Davis,
chief of resource management for the Klamath Project.
``It could go to that process,'' Davis said. ``It's been
Such a request would be just the fourth case to go before the
Endangered Species Committee -- popularly known as the ``God Squad''
because it weighs the economic benefits of federal projects against
the survival of endangered species.
The panel, made up of seven cabinet-level officials chaired by the
U.S. secretary of interior, was added to the Endangered Species Act
by Congress in 1978 after a tiny fish called the snail darter stopped
construction of a dam in Tennessee.
The committee has considered the fates of the snail darter, the
whooping crane and the Northern spotted owl, and has gone ahead with
a federal project just once. In 1991, the committee approved some
timber sales despite threats to the spotted owl. The exemption was
ultimately dropped amid allegations of illegal lobbying.
The Klamath Project was authorized by Congress in 1905 and made it
possible for veterans of World War I and World War II to homestead in
the Klamath Basin, where soils are deep, but high altitude and low
rainfalls make farming difficult.
The project now supports about 1,000 families growing cattle,
horses, potatoes, onions, and alfalfa.
A 1998 Oregon State University study projected $2 million a year
in agricultural losses to maintain water for the suckers in the
basin. The figure would rise to $15 million -- 60 percent of average
farm profits -- in drought years.
Fish and Wildlife officials say the Klamath Project needs to
install screens to keep suckers from straying to their deaths in
irrigation canals, and maintain Upper Klamath Lake, the project's
primary reservoir, a foot higher than in the past to minimize the
chances for a fish kill due to poor water quality.
The new instructions came in what is known as a draft jeopardy
opinion, which must go through public comment and further review
before becoming final. There are no current projections for
agricultural losses under the new instructions.
The extra assurance is needed after more than 80 percent of the
suckers died between 1985 and 1987 due to poor water quality, and the
findings would have been made regardless of the current drought, said
Steve Lewis, Klamath Falls project manager for Fish and Wildlife.
The irrigation season normally begins around April 1, and the
drought has left snowpacks so low that just 37 percent of the
irrigation water in a normal year is expected to be available, Davis
No decision will be made on whether to cut off any Klamath Project
farms until the bureau hears from the National Marine Fisheries
Service. The agency is due to make additional claims for flows into
the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon.
Don Russell, chairman of the Klamath Water Users Association, said
Fish and Wildlife's conditions would require shutting off farmers.
``You'd have to have an incredibly wet year for us to be able to get
water under that scenario,'' he said. ``It may take the God Squad to
bring some sense to this. Can you imagine shutting down a
multi-hundred-million-dollar economy with its schools and churches
because we -- quote -- might harm something?''
There is more than just the Endangered Species Act to consider,
noted Carl Ullman, attorney for the Klamath Tribes. When the U.S.
government signed the Treaty of 1864, sending the Klamath Tribes to
the reservation, it committed to maintaining the suckers as a tribal
Though the tribes stopped fishing for the suckers shortly before
they were listed as endangered in 1988, the fish are still an
important part of tribal culture. The annual ceremony to celebrate
the return of the fish occurred recently.
While farms will suffer, giving fish and wildlife more water will
benefit other economies such as salmon fishing and tourism associated
with annual migrations of waterfowl and eagles through Klamath Basin
wildlife refuges, said Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources
``It's totally penny wise and pound foolish to continue to pour
water on subsidized crops that no one needs at the expense of what is
the greatest wildlife spectacle anywhere on the Pacific Coast,'' Wood
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