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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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No more Klamath Basins: Require sound science


Reprinted from Capital Press, Vol. 77, No. 36, Sept. 3, 2004


William A. Steel, President of the National Grange


The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 with a goal to conserve and protect

American wildlife species and plants threatened with extinction. While this goal was

certainly worthy, 30 years has given us little to show for all of the effort. Rep. Chris

Cannon, R-Utah, said no single species has been removed from the endangered species

list due to the ESA performance. At least 15 species were removed because they were

improperly listed (i.e., never actually endangered in the first place).


All of this might be acceptable, given the goals of the act, were it not for the gigantic,

uncompensated costs that have been imposed upon private landowners, including many

working farmers and ranchers, through the inefficient implementation of this legislation.

The single most shocking example of the ESA out of control was the federal

government’s irrigation water shut-off in Oregon and California’s Klamath Basin region

in April 2001.


More than 1,200 farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin were denied irrigation

water following a decision made by federal officials under the ESA to protect several

species of endangered fish, which was later determined by the National Academy of

Sciences to have been made without sound scientific justification. The sudden

disappearance of irrigation water generated a loss of nearly $200 million to the local

economy and forced nearly two dozen farmers into bankruptcy.


The NAS report also concluded that shutting off the irrigation and disrupting the

seasonal water flow created environmental conditions that were, in fact, harmful to the

species the government was trying to protect. What a disastrous consequence of irrational law enforcement.


Today, we know that the Klamath Basin ESA decision was based on inadequate

scientific information as well as chronic misinterpretation of the scientific data that

government officials had available to them. Why did this occur?


Perhaps it is because, unique among all of our nation’s keystone environmental

programs, the decisions regarding implementation of this program are the least

transparent and the least subject to outside public review and comment. To keep Klamath Basin from happening again, we have to require open, independent, and unbiased public comment and scientific peer review of the government’s decisions regarding listing or delisting a species and in creation of recovery plans, especially on critical habitat.


“If you went to a doctor and he said to you, ‘We are going to have to take off your right

leg,’ you’d probably want a second opinion. Right now under the Endangered Species

Act, plants, animals and people don’t have the chance to seek a second opinion,” said

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. He reintroduced the Sound Science for Endangered Species Act Planning Act of 2003 (HR1662), which recently passed the House Resources Committee.


The legislation will improve the ESA by incorporating a scientific peer review process

as a precondition for ESA decisions. It will establish a mandatory, independent, scientific

review requirement for all ESA listing and delisting proposals to ensure the use of sound

science and provide a mechanism for resolving scientific disputes during the rulemaking

process. It also will require that an action, including an action for injunctive relief, to

enforce the prohibition against the incidental taking of a species must be based on

pertinent evidence using scientifically valid principles.


Many agriculture organizations, including National Grange, applaud the recent House

effort to push forward the ESA improvement bill. Well enough aware of the dramatic

impact of the ESA on private landowners, many farmers and ranchers have criticized

federal government’s irresponsible and arbitrary ESA management. Walden’s legislation

reflects their request for acknowledgeable scientific evidence in the ESA decisions.


Now time is essential. We cannot sit back. In our system of government, legislation does

not pass of its own accord simply because the idea has merit and strong public support.

Legislators must act before we can see reform. There are only a few weeks left in the

108th Congress before we experience the predictable interruption of political frenzy in

November. Similar common-sense reform legislation was approved by the House

Resources Committee during the 107th Congress (HR4840), but time ran out before the

full House of Representatives could consider the legislation before the end of the year.

We don’t want to do this again this year.


Let’s speak up to Congress, “No More Klamath Basins, Please!” The common-sense

reform of the ESA should be accomplished within this session of Congress. By enacting

the Sound Science legislation we will be able to prevent another catastrophic decision

such as the one that led to the Klamath Basin crisis.


William A. Steel is president of the National Grange, a community service and

grassroots organization that advocates for legislative actions and strengthening civic participation that benefit Americans.


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