Simmons: If jury is still out, why presume
farmers are guilty?
by Paul Simmons Klamath Water Users Association
The well-written and informative article
in the August 14 edition concerning Upper Klamath Lake
elevations and sucker populations (“Does
Upper Klamath Lake’s elevation affect suckers? The jury’s still
omits a harsh reality: For nearly 30 years, Klamath Project
irrigators have been presumed guilty and punished, even though
there is no evidence that their use of water from Upper Klamath
Lake has anything to do with endangered sucker populations.
True, scientific inquiry can go on indefinitely, and some groups
may never give up on the argument that high Upper Klamath Lake
elevations are necessary for suckers. But we do have a verdict,
from an elite jury: the National Research Council of the
National Academy of Sciences. The unanimous conclusions of that
blue-ribbon, multi-disciplinary panel, after review of all the
• Despite a monitoring record of substantial length, there is no
clear evidence of a connection between the lake levels and the
welfare of the two sucker species in Upper Klamath Lake.
• Extensive field data on the fish and environmental conditions
in Upper Klamath Lake do not provide scientific support for the
underlying premise of the [2001 biological opinion] that higher
lake levels will help maintain or lead to the recovery of these
• Further research may show a relationship between inundation of
the spawning area [for suckers] and larval recruitment. Present
data suggest, however, that any relationship would be either
weak or indirect. Thus, the connection does not appear to be
especially important for the population.
• Although USFWS went to considerable lengths to examine the
direct influence of high water levels in Upper Klamath Lake on
sucker welfare, the data now on hand contradict the hypothesis
that water level is associated with fish kills.
• Water level in Upper Klamath Lake shows no relationship to
water quality conditions that result in mass mortality of adult
suckers or other potentially adverse water quality conditions.
In addition, water level shows no relationship to year-class
strength or to abundance of fry or juveniles over the years
during which standardized sampling is available.
In fairness, the NRC reached its conclusions 15 years ago. But
it is not fair to suggest that there are data pointing to new or
different conclusions now as compared to then. In fact, in 2018,
a federal district court in San Francisco rejected arguments
that suckers need higher lake elevations.
We cannot treat the question of Upper Klamath Lake elevations
and sucker populations as being a “coin toss” or merely a matter
of academic discussion.
Without water, crops, farms, and rural communities die. The
amount of water in one inch of depth in Upper Klamath lake is
enough to irrigate about five square miles of Klamath Project
land for an entire year. Farmers have been, and are being,
curtailed. And rural communities are hurting severely, because
there might, someday, be found to be a relationship between lake
elevations and overall sucker populations, all evidence to date
If there were real-world data supporting that high lake
elevations help suckers, there would be a need for difficult
policy calls. But that is not the case.
The NRC stated: “Whereas professional judgment is essential for
successful ESA implementation where site-specific information is
absent, its use is more problematic when initial judgments fail
empirical tests. Reversal of an initial judgment may seem to be
an abandonment of duty or a principle, but it is unrealistic to
expect that all initial judgments will be presumed proved
Klamath Project irrigators have gone out on a limb and supported
uncharacteristic measures such as removing Chiloquin Dam and
eliminating prime farmland like Tulana Farms in the name of
The experts say these things didn’t help. Regulating Project
water supply hasn’t helped.
There is no denying that sucker populations are in trouble.
Klamath Water Users Association applauds the efforts of
researchers and conservationists, and our members of Congress
who are trying very hard to help the species hold on so that
they can recover. We need to focus on solving problems, and get
away from regulation for regulation’s sake.
Paul Simmons is the Executive
Director and Counsel for Klamath Water Users Association
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