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In the Klamath, Politics Defeat Science and Common Sense

The AP has reported that seven fisheries scientists from the Klamath Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) filed a complaint claiming they had been the victims of political retribution. Like many who came before them these scientist claimed their science was being tampered with for political reasons. The Klamath BOR responded that they were actually engaged in a restructuring and would be tasking the US Geological Survey with future scientific studies because the larger scientific community and Tribes did not consider the BOR’s science credible.

No matter who is telling the truth, recent claims of retribution by government scientist come as no surprise. The Klamath Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) has used bad science in the past. No one living on the Klamath can forget the Bush Administration decision to manipulate Klamath science in 2002 and the subsequent death of 60,000 salmon followed by years of fishing disaster declarations because of scant salmon populations. It appears we may be slipping back toward those dark days.

The Klamath River is the third largest river in the West. It hosts five California tribes, including its largest, and regulates the West Coast’s iconic commercial fishing industry. Its water aids no major cities and therefore the River has the greatest chance for fisheries recovery in the West. Even the Klamath’s one large corporation, PacifiCorp, has agreed it should remove its dams to aid fish recovery.

Yet, nowhere have water wars been fiercer. Lawlessness regarding water and pollution is common. Tribal senior water rights are still compromised. Science often takes a back seat in decisions. To the detriment of an entire ecosystem, the lands, including public lands, are drained and farmed with little regulation to benefit subsidized farms.

Currently, Klamath settlements, including the Klamath Basin Restoration Act (KBRA) add to the lawlessness by lowering flows. Dam removal, which would greatly benefit the Klamath River, continues to be tied to a bad water sharing agreement that sacrifices Tribal Rights. The settlement was a great effort to bring people together, but it provides less water then the Endangered Species Act (ESA) currently calls for. The KBRA even state the government and trustee for Klamath Tribes will not exercise water rights, even if the Tribes are not party to the agreement.

Last year Klamath flows were too low for the salmon runs and extra water was needed from the Trinity River, a tributary to the Klamath, to avoid a fish kill. Next year the Bureau of Reclamation proposes to lower flows to levels not supported by science, and without the benefit of dam removal. Agencies tasked to protect the environment oftentimes fold to anti-fisheries pressure. Widely accepted concepts like fish need water are studied for decades on the Klamath, with no conclusions drawn.

Here are some recent examples of how politics is currently dominating science:

• This past December, almost twenty years after the original proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service finally defined mandated critical habitat for endangered Short Nose and Lost River Suckers. The result: agencies agreed to remove the species from the Lost River, for which the species was named, and a wildlife refuge, to prioritize farming. In the end the total acreage of critical sucker habitat was reduced by 630,000 acres, a 72 percent reduction in habitat. These fish only exist in the Klamath and are declining fast.

• Late last fall flows for Coho salmon were reduced by 23 percent even though just months before flows had to be increased in the Trinity River to avoid a fish kill. Now Reclamation plans to reduce Klamath flows even more.

• Despite claims of proponents, the KBRA reduces water for fish, ignoring studies proving fish need water. Government studies, which are posted on the website, show that in most years the KBRA will provide less water than fish need and less than the current ESA-required flows.

• Similarly the Clean Water Act seems not to apply in the Klamath. Studies show that the Klamath dams and farmers’ pollution create record levels of toxic algae. However, the only Clean Water Act process that can address this issue was recently delayed for the seventh year even though the law calls for it to proceed within a year of the polluter’s, PacifiCorp, application.

• The Scott River, which now goes dry in the summer, was once one of the biggest Coho producing tributaries to the Klamath. Numerous studies have shown the dewatering of the river has accelerated due to unregulated ground water pumping. A groundwater study in progress could prove this, yet agriculture interest control the study and water data is kept secret.

It is time for species protection and scientific integrity to take priority over politics in the Klamath, before it is too late. The fate of six Tribes and the west coast fishing industry depends on it.

Leonard Masten is the chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. He has been active with the Tribal council for the last fourteen years and is a retired law enforcement officer with over 26 years of experience. His main goal as Tribal chairman is to make the Hoopa Valley a safe and drug free environment.