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Not so black and white

As Wulfgar has noted, there’s a letter in the paper today attacking Rehberg’s recent op-ed about reforms of the ESA. For whatever reason (putting off homework, I suspect), I was curious about this claim:

By way of illustration he cites the Klamath River diversion battle of 2001. He claims that the closing of the headgate was to protect the Klamath River sucker, but in reality this was only one of several species which were aided by the diversion. You might be more familiar with another one: the Coho salmon. Mr. Rehberg claims that the decision to divert water was “junk science” and backs it up with quotes from a NAS report on the decision. The problem is that these quotes are from a preliminary report. The final report found that the biologists made the best decision given the available evidence. Two years later a similar situation held and the decision was made not to release water into the Klamath. The result was a fish kill of 200,000-plus individuals in the lower Klamath River.

Here’s what Rehberg says:

Ask the more than 1,200 farmers in Oregon’s Klamath River Basin who watched their entire life savings evaporate with a 2001 ruling that essentially diverted their water to streams occupied by the shortnose sucker fish. Overnight, nearly 200,000 acres of farmland became worthless from forfeited irrigation rights when a few federal officials acted on scientific conjecture under the authority given to them by the ESA.

After months of review, real scientists at the prestigious National Academy of Sciences found the ruling had “no sound scientific basis” and that “despite theoretical speculations, there is no basis in evidence” to support the actions taken against the farmers.

Sully, the letter writer, claims Rehberg is quoting from an interim report. This doesn’t appear to be correct. A search on the NAS’s website gives us two reports: this one, marked “interim” and this one, from last year. From page 6 of the 2004 report comes this quote:

Thus, despite theoretical speculations, there is no basis in evidence for optimism that manipulation of water levels has the potential to moderate mass mortality of suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.

The salmon question is a little more hazy. It seems like the NAS is only evaluating the water diversion issue with regards to the two sucker species, which would imply that that particular decision was justified only on the basis of those two species and not the salmon. Calling Rehberg stupid or dishonest on this point seems over the top.

However, Sully isn’t incorrect on the larger point. From page 10:

The listing agencies have been criticized for using pseudoscientific reasoning (“junk science”) in justifying their requirements for the protection of species in the upper Klamath basin. The committee disagrees with this criticism. The ESA allows the agencies to use a wide array of information sources in protecting listed species. The agencies can be expected, when information is scarce, to extend their recommendations beyond rigorously tested hypotheses and into professional judgment as a means of minimizing risk to the species.

In other words, they made a mistake. They go on to say that they’ve mostly corrected it. Is Rehberg wrong in his criticism? Maybe. I would say yes, but I don’t think he’s being dishonest here.

Sully gets another thing wrong:

Two years later a similar situation held and the decision was made not to release water into the Klamath. The result was a fish kill of 200,000-plus individuals in the lower Klamath River.

This is what that NAS report (page 9) says about that:

The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), through an analysis of environmental conditions over 5 yr of low flow within the last 15 yr, showed that neither the flows nor the temperatures that occurred in the second half of September 2002 were unprecedented. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) supports this conclusion. Thus, no obvious explanation of the fish kill based on unique flow or temperature conditions is possible.

CDFG has proposed that the shape of the channel in the lowermost reaches of the Klamath main stem changed in 1997-1998 under the influence of high flows, which caused fish entering the river to be unable to proceed upstream under low-flow conditions. An alternate hypothesis is that an unusual combination of temperature, flow, and migration conditions occurred in 2002, possibly in association with weather than prevented the river from showing nocturnal cooling to an extent that would usually be expected.

It is unclear what the effect of specific amounts of additional flow drawn from controllable upstream sources…would have been.

There also seems to be a discrepancy in the number of fish killed. Sully says 200,000 (as does this) and the NAS report says 33,000. I think that’s because the NAS is only counting Chinook salmon, but I’m not sure.

So, what do we conclude from this? Rehberg doesn’t seem to be misleading or dishonest on this particular issue. I think a case can be made that his interpretation that it’s a negative for the ESA is wrong. For what it’s worth, the NAS report has a section on improving the implementation of the ESA as it stands. Rehberg would probably do better to read that and give us an argument as to why what the NAS recommends is not enough and how TESRA actually does fix the problem.

Categories: Environment, Montana
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