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Paul Simmons

Paul Simmons

The well-written and informative article in the August 14 edition concerning Upper Klamath Lake elevations and sucker populations (“Does Upper Klamath Lake’s elevation affect suckers? The jury’s still out”) omits a harsh reality: For nearly 30 years, Klamath Project irrigators have been presumed guilty and punished, even though there is no evidence that their use of water from Upper Klamath Lake has anything to do with endangered sucker populations.

True, scientific inquiry can go on indefinitely, and some groups may never give up on the argument that high Upper Klamath Lake elevations are necessary for suckers. But we do have a verdict, from an elite jury: the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The unanimous conclusions of that blue-ribbon, multi-disciplinary panel, after review of all the evidence?

• Despite a monitoring record of substantial length, there is no clear evidence of a connection between the lake levels and the welfare of the two sucker species in Upper Klamath Lake.

• Extensive field data on the fish and environmental conditions in Upper Klamath Lake do not provide scientific support for the underlying premise of the [2001 biological opinion] that higher lake levels will help maintain or lead to the recovery of these two species.

• Further research may show a relationship between inundation of the spawning area [for suckers] and larval recruitment. Present data suggest, however, that any relationship would be either weak or indirect. Thus, the connection does not appear to be especially important for the population.

• Although USFWS went to considerable lengths to examine the direct influence of high water levels in Upper Klamath Lake on sucker welfare, the data now on hand contradict the hypothesis that water level is associated with fish kills.

• Water level in Upper Klamath Lake shows no relationship to water quality conditions that result in mass mortality of adult suckers or other potentially adverse water quality conditions. In addition, water level shows no relationship to year-class strength or to abundance of fry or juveniles over the years during which standardized sampling is available.

In fairness, the NRC reached its conclusions 15 years ago. But it is not fair to suggest that there are data pointing to new or different conclusions now as compared to then. In fact, in 2018, a federal district court in San Francisco rejected arguments that suckers need higher lake elevations.

We cannot treat the question of Upper Klamath Lake elevations and sucker populations as being a “coin toss” or merely a matter of academic discussion.

Without water, crops, farms, and rural communities die. The amount of water in one inch of depth in Upper Klamath lake is enough to irrigate about five square miles of Klamath Project land for an entire year. Farmers have been, and are being, curtailed. And rural communities are hurting severely, because there might, someday, be found to be a relationship between lake elevations and overall sucker populations, all evidence to date notwithstanding.

If there were real-world data supporting that high lake elevations help suckers, there would be a need for difficult policy calls. But that is not the case.

The NRC stated: “Whereas professional judgment is essential for successful ESA implementation where site-specific information is absent, its use is more problematic when initial judgments fail empirical tests. Reversal of an initial judgment may seem to be an abandonment of duty or a principle, but it is unrealistic to expect that all initial judgments will be presumed proved sound.”

Klamath Project irrigators have gone out on a limb and supported uncharacteristic measures such as removing Chiloquin Dam and eliminating prime farmland like Tulana Farms in the name of helping suckers.

The experts say these things didn’t help. Regulating Project water supply hasn’t helped.

There is no denying that sucker populations are in trouble. Klamath Water Users Association applauds the efforts of researchers and conservationists, and our members of Congress who are trying very hard to help the species hold on so that they can recover. We need to focus on solving problems, and get away from regulation for regulation’s sake.

Paul Simmons is the Executive Director and Counsel for Klamath Water Users Association