NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

NAS Study Rebukes Interior Department Shut-Off of Irrigation Water

February 5, 2002

Farmers along the California-Oregon border were incensed last year by a Department of the Interior decision to deny them water from the Klamath River to irrigate their crops. Department officials said the water was needed to save endangered suckerfish and coho salmon.

A drought in the area last summer left farmers pleading with Interior officials to release water -- and when the department refused, the enraged farmers opened canal gates on July 4 in what the government warned would be an illegal action.

Now a preliminary report from the National Academy of Sciences finds no evidence that low water levels in drought years led to a die-off of the fish.

  • The Interior Department was forced to take its stand based on an analysis by federal biologists of the conditions of the fish, and its reading of the Endangered Species Act.
  • The farmers -- who contended that there was plenty of water for both the fish and irrigation -- now estimate they lost more than $200 million worth of crops because of the government's action.
  • Although Interior Secretary Gail A. Norton ordered limited releases of water later in July, the farmers say the action was too little and too late.

Environmental activists were surprised by the critical tone of the NAS report. Secretary Norton said the decision "will affect our decision-making process for this year and future years."

Source: Andrew C. Revkin, "Study Discounts Halting Irrigation to Protect Fish," New York Times, February 5, 2002; based on "Scientific Evaluation of Biological Opinions on Endangered and Threatened Fishes of the Klamath River Basin: Interim Report," Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National Research Council, February 2002.


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