Twenty-four conservation, Native American, fishing, and physician's groups, representing millions of citizens, sent Interior Secretary Gale Norton a letter this week expressing their concerns with the administration's plans for the Klamath Basin. Specifically, the letter called on the administration to abandon its proposed ten-year water management and operations plan for the Klamath Project and issue a plan that would not drive endangered species to extinction. Their concerns are twofold: First, that the plan would deny needed water to the endangered fish and wildlife in the basin, and second, that it proposes a radical legal theory that seeks to overrule the Endangered Species Act in the Klamath and throughout the West.
"This plan is a direct attack on the fundamental principles of the ESA and a threat to fish and wildlife conservation everywhere," said Susan Holmes of Earthjustice. "If the Bureau of Reclamation fails to recognize its obligations under the ESA, it could have implications for efforts to protect and restore endangered species on the Rio Grande, Upper Colorado River and in salmon-producing rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest."
The plan, which would cover water operations for the next ten years, proposes a legal theory that the Bureau of Reclamation has an obligation to provide full water deliveries to irrigators on the Klamath Project, regardless of the needs of endangered species, tribal trust agreements, or other laws. This theory is directly contradicted by every decision issued by every federal court that has addressed the Klamath Project and the Endangered Species Act.
The plan also runs counter to the recommendations in the National Academy of Sciences Interim Review on the Klamath, which warned that taking lake levels and river flows down to the level that is requested in this plan would result in "undocumented risk" to endangered species. Conservationists worry the administration may use parts of the NAS review that it agrees with to justify turning back the clock on restoration efforts in the Klamath Basin, while ignoring the conclusions that it dislikes.
"The National Academy of Science review showed that the Klamath Basin suffers from severe environmental problems," said Holmes. "The administration needs to deal with them, not play games with the ESA."