This week's National Academy of Sciences review of the Klamath Basin debacle pitting fisheries and farming issues against each other ought to give pause to regulatory agencies everywhere.
The review, which was conducted at the behest of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, found insufficient evidence to justify the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's biological opinions officials cited last year in shutting off water to Klamath Basin irrigators.
Environmental concerns focused on the effect of drought on endangered fisheries; the opinion suggested those fish needed more water, regardless of the impact on agriculture.
The shutdown caused economic chaos for Klamath farmers, and led to several confrontations with federal officials.
"Based on our evaluation, if there was another drought year the farmers would get more water," said Peter Moyle, a committee member and professor of fish biology at University of California-Davis. "The basic idea was that the information just wasn't there to justify the kinds of conclusions that were there."
The study is only an interim report; a final version, which will take a broader view, is due next year.
Klamath farm supporters see the report as vindication of their earlier objections to the water shut-off.
"The National Research Council's independent review of the decisions made in operating the Klamath Project confirm beyond question that the shut-off of irrigation water in the Klamath Basin was not based on sound science," said Congressman Greg Walden (R-Oregon). "This report exposes flawed decisions that were made in the name of protecting fish, which forced family farmers and ranchers to go bankrupt and brought widespread harm to the economic vitality of the entire Klamath community ... simply put, the government got it wrong."
Walden called on federal officials to re-evaluate their policies.
"We need a plan that will help fish without crippling farmers and ranchers," Walden said.
Beyond that, as Walden also notes, the report suggests the value of independent review of data prior to implementing enforcement actions under the Endangered Species Act. Given the human and economic impact inherent in this act, such review should indeed be an absolute prerequisite to ensure hardships are not imposed needlessly, as appears to have been the case this past year in the Klamath Basin.
Of course, such review won't come without its own costs.
Walden and other lawmakers need to ensure that the scientific community itself is adequately funded to undertake such reviews.
It will be a sound investment, though, if it allows farmers and fisheries a better chance at peaceful and profitable coexistence.