Endangered Fish and Water Use in the Klamath Basin


During 2001, a drought raised long-standing controversies over water use in the Klamath Basin to crisis proportions. Environmental requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act for the protection of three fish species took legal priority over federal contracts through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for delivery of water to private farms in the basin. As a result, virtually no water was delivered to 220,000 acres of irrigated farmland that had previously received irrigation water under federal contract since at least the 1960s. Irrigators charged that the curtailment of water delivery was not well justified, whereas supporters of the action responded that use of water for irrigation under drought conditions would imperil the endangered fishes. In response to the controversy, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Commerce asked the National Academies to form a committee of the National Research Council to study the scientific support underlying the recommendations leading to restrictions on irrigation. The committee produced an interim report during 2002 and a final report during 2003. We spoke with Dr. William Lewis, chair of the NRC committee, about the committee’s work and its conclusions.

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