Promoters of the proposed Klamath River Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) both within and outside the federal government claim they’ve used the best available science to fashion proposed water allocations and river flow schedules. They point to how they used the natural flow record from the Williamson River to adjust Klamath flow needs from those prescribed in the current Biological Opinions prepared for threatened Coho Salmon and endangered Kuptu and Tsuam (aka Lost River and Shortnose sucker species). They also claim that the ESA flow regime is focused on only a single species – Coho – while the KBRA proposed flows will be good for all species.
Opponents of the KBRA claim that it ignores the best available science by – among other things - determining the proposed flow regime based on what is left after irrigators in the Klamath Project get a legislatively guaranteed allocation off the top. These critics point out that the proposed flows are lower than those in the Biological Opinion for Coho Salmon in many months and year types including ALWAYS being lower in October when Chinook salmon are migrating. Critics also point out that the KBRA ignores the recommendations of two National Research Council panels – the only independent scientific assessments of Klamath science. Among other criticisms, the second NRC report said that the flow studies which have been done on the Klamath treat the River Basin like “the Upper Basin and a gutter to the sea.” These scientists recommended a “basin-wide” flow assessment as the proper tool to use when setting river flows and water allocations.
The promoters’ claim that their flow recommendations are multi-species is also challenged by critics. What promoters really did, critics say, is substitute Chinook for Coho as the focal species for flow allocation. The KBRA proposed flows may be better for Chinook; but they are not based on multiple species’ flow needs. So claim the critics.
So who is correct? Who is using “good” science and who is employing “bad” science?
Unfortunately there is no correct answer to these questions. That’s because science does not provide absolute answers. What science does is collect data, study data, develop hypotheses and then test those hypotheses. When models are used they too are tested against available data; they never fit the data perfectly but as more data is incorporated good models get better. There is always more data to integrate, new models and methodologies and new experiments and interpretations of data. Therefore the “truth” that science provides is not static and eternal but provisional… Scientists tell us what they have learned and the conclusions this knowledge indicates….until they learn more or understand the data better.
The KBRA seeks to lock in what its promoters call “good science” via federal legislation. This approach is not “bad” science but it is fundamentally unscientific. Legislation implementing the KBRA would cut short the scientific process and declare that we know all we need to know – and all we will ever need to know – in order to set and lock in water allocations for irrigation and river flows for the River via federal legislation. A scientific approach would use the KBRA proposed flows as a hypothesis to be tested, not as a conclusion to be locked in via legislation.
KBRA promoters also invoke adaptive management and hedge their bets by saying that – once the KBRA is locked in via legislation – they will complete drought and climate change plans in order to provide more water if the River needs it during a future drought or a future dryer Klamath River Basin.
There are problems with these approaches. First, while adaptive management began as a scientific construct, it has since been politicized. In practice adaptive management has been used to sweep issues under the rug where they tend to remain. Second, once an allocation to the irrigators is locked in via federal legislation the only way to get more water in the River will be to buy that water from those who have a legislative right to it – the sub-set of Upper Basin irrigators who get irrigation water via the federal Klamath Irrigation Project.
Buying water for fish is not unscientific but KlamBlog agrees with those who say it is bad policy and a bad precedent. Water needed to support Public Trust Resources like salmon must take precedence over irrigation; otherwise irrigation will eventually suck up all the water and our rivers will be summer-dry flood water conveyances. As a matter of fact that is exactly what is happening right now on the Shasta River, the Scott River, the Eel River, the Russian River and numerous other streams and rivers across the West.
There is also the very unscientific – but relevant – question of whether, if the KBRA becomes federal law, the money will be there to buy the water fish need. We can look to the Trinity River for an indication. In spite of federal legislation which authorizes adequate funds for Trinity River restoration, neither Congress nor various administrations have sought or provided the funds the original legislation says are needed and would be forthcoming.
Could this happen on the Klamath? You bet your boots it could!
Science is, of course, silent on these policy issues.