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2001 Controversy
Science Policy




Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

2001 Controversy

In 2001 reduced water supplies stemming from the drought of 2000-2001, the needs of three fish species and the bald eagle listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and United States treaty obligations with four Indian Tribes, resulted in an announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation that there would be no deliveries of water from the Klamath Project to contract water irrigators during the 2001 growing season. Protests, civil disobedience, and aid packages from Congress ensued.

In the fall of 2001 the Secretary of the Interior called for a review of the science used by United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to justify higher lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake and higher flow rates in the Klamath River to protect endangered fish. The review resulted in a change of the “best available science” used by FWS and NMFS for determining whether BOR’s operation of the Link River Dam would jeopardize the listed fish and a change in operations plans for the lake and river in 2002 — another dry year. Irrigators received water.

The NRC panel was asked to evaluate whether BOR’s proposed lake levels and minimum stream flows jeopardized the continued existence of the listed species. Put another way, the committee was asked to determine whether higher stream flows and lake levels would lead to recovery of the listed species – a very narrow question. The panel was also asked to review and evaluate what is needed for the suckers and salmon to survive and recover, identify newly available science, and identify data and funding gaps.

The NRC concluded that empirical data from Upper Klamath Lake did not support the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative for management of lake levels in 2001.  The committee reported that, “...there is presently no sound evidence for recommending an operating regime for the Klamath Project that seeks to ensure lake levels higher on average than those occurring between 1990 and 2000. At the same time the committee concluded that “there is no scientific basis for operating the lake at mean minimum levels below the recent historical ones (1990-2000), as would be allowed under the USBR proposal. Operations leading to lower lake levels would require acceptance of undocumented risks to the suckers” (NRC 2002, p.3-4). The committee continues, “An essential premise of the lake-level recommendations is that the adverse water quality conditions known to stress or kill endangered suckers are associated with the lowest water levels within the recent historic range...”(NRC 2002, p.16).

The committee’s draft report found that there was substantial scientific support in all parts of the Biological Opinions on the suckers and coho except for the recommendations concerning minimum lake levels for Upper Klamath Lake and minimum flow levels in Klamath River. These fell short because there was no direct data indicating that more water would benefit the fish – the FWS and NMFS biologists had looked at all the research completed and applied their professional judgment to recommend minimum flow rates for the Klamath River and minimum levels for Klamath Lake.

The result was a firestorm of publicity – most of it critical of FWS and NMFS and specifically of the scientists working for the agencies. Press releases from congressmen and interest groups trumpeted the use of “junk science” by the federal scientists, implying either that they were incompetent or at best had an illicit agenda.

In September of 2002, approximately 33,000 fish died in the Klamath River. Analyses by the California Fish and Game Department and the FWS pointed to low river flows, consequent crowding of fish, and ultimate infection of the fish by naturally occurring protozoa and bacteria (Ich) as the cause of the die-off. An uneasy calm settled over the Klamath Basin as everyone waited for the NRC’s final report. In the meantime everyone hoped for lots of winter precipitation.

Now throughout the west – most notably Idaho and New Mexico where the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow is in competition with Sta. Fe for water, the cry of “Remember the Klamath” rings.

What Was Asked?

  • The objective of the NMFS Biological Opinion (BO) was to determine, based on the “best scientific and commercial data available”, whether the proposed operation of the BOR Klamath Project dams would jeopardize the continued existence of threatened coho or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.
  • The objective of the FWS Biological Opinion was to determine, based on the “best scientific and commercial data available,” whether the proposed operation of the BOR Klamath Project dams would jeopardize the continued existence of the suckers or bald eagles or harm critical habitat.
  • The agencies’ job was to assess the risk of BOR operations to 3 listed fish and the bald eagle.
  • Both BOs recommended Reasonably Prudent Alternatives based on the best available science AND the professional judgment of agency biologists AND constrained by what actions BOR could take (regulation of water levels via operation of Iron Gate Dam).
  • Both BOs recognized that the science is uncertain BUT the agencies had to act – when the science is questionable, the agencies are, by law, supposed to err on the side of species protection
  • Both BOs recognized that the problem and ultimate solution were basin-wide.
  • The NRC was asked to determine whether higher water levels in Klamath Lake and in the Klamath River would benefit the listed species.