Politics and the National Academy of Sciences


The controversy over water allocation in the Klamath River basin is a classic western water conflict, too many users and too little water. [See the August 2003 issue of Environmental Review.] The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, was asked by the federal government to conduct a scientific evaluation of what is known about Klamath Lake basin and the three species of endangered fishes it is home to1. The NRC committee released an interim report in the spring of 2003 and its final report in October 2003. The interim report focused exclusively on one issue, the lake level, and to say that it was controversial is an understatement. The interim report found, contrary to many people's expectations, that there was no published evidence that tied lake levels to reproductive success of the endangered fishes. And many observers, including myself, expressed dismay at the current administration's apparent successes in rolling back protection for endangered species.

However, the final report, which looks at all of the causes for the decline of the Klamath Lake fishes, not just the lake levels, gives no comfort to the Bush crowd. To put it in a nutshell, there are so many things working against the short-nosed sucker and Lost River sucker in the Klamath Lake system that raising or lowering the lake level in the summer won't make much difference to the survival of the fish.

As a result of the NRC final report it is clear that the parties involved, (local farmers, the tribes, government agencies, and environmental groups) will have to address the many underlying environmental problems in the Klamath basin and quit relying on the band-aid approach of giving the fish a little more water some of the time.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are doing the best they can with severely limited resources to keep these species alive. The final report of the NRC committee spells out in some detail what needs to be done in terms of spawning habitat restoration, water quality improvement, and irrigation practices. The task now is to keep the pressure on and to find the money needed to reverse the trends in this ecosystem. Painful as the process may be, the implementation of the Endangered Species Act in this case, has provided notice to the people in the Klamath basin that the ecosystem that supports them is in decline and needs work. Implementing the recommendations of the NRC committee would go a long way toward providing a more diversified and revitalized local economy as well as a healthy ecosystem.

In next month's issue of Environmental Review we will interview William Lewis, the chairman of the NRC Committee on Endangered Fishes in the Klamath, for a more detailed explanation of the Klamath basin study. In this issue we learn how the NRC committees do their work and how the National Academies negotiate the political cross currents when they are called upon to evaluate the science that, we hope, provides the foundation for public policy. Gordon Orians is professor emeritus at the University of Washington, an authority on the biology and behavioral ecology of blackbirds, a member of the Academy, and for the last six years, chairman of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology (BEST) of the NRC, which is the board that organized and supervised the committee on endangered fishes in the Klamath basin. We spoke with him about some of his experiences during his tenure on the board.

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