- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

The Bush administration will not review a last-minute Clinton-era decision that shut off water to 1,400 drought-stricken farmers to protect two endangered fish species.

The Endangered Species Commission, nicknamed the "God Squad," will not convene because of a technicality in the request, said Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton.

Meanwhile, farmers illegally breached the headgates Sunday in a desperate attempt to get water to their parched fields, and local law-enforcement officials refused to intervene.

While the administration will not review the Endangered Species Act (ESA) decision that affects the Klamath water basin, it will work with Congress to secure $20 million in disaster relief, Mrs. Norton said.

"We are deeply concerned about the personal and economic circumstances facing the Klamath Basin farmers," Mrs. Norton said.

Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by the decision that affects his state and California.

"There is no easy solution to the crisis afflicting the people of the Klamath Basin, but I will continue to explore every option available under the law," Mr. Walden said.

The congressionally mandated commission is chaired by Mrs. Norton and includes other high-level administration officials. It is rarely convened and is the only government entity that can veto an endangered species decision, hence its "God Squad" nickname. The protected fish are a salmon and a sucker fish species.

"The federal government continues to suffer from a drought of common sense on the Klamath issue," said David E. Haddock, Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer. The foundation filed the request on behalf of the two area water districts.

"First the government victimized thousands of people in the Klamath Basin with a fish-first, people-last policy that cut off water and threatens to destroy people's livelihoods and futures. Now it victimizes them a second time by denying them the opportunity to make their case for relief to the Endangered Species Committee," Mr. Haddock said.

The Klamath Valley was just beginning to recover from an economic disaster brought on by an endangered-species regulation a decade ago, when spotted owl protections shut down the area's timber industry.

Agriculture emerged as the new industry, but residents fear that, without water, this community the federal government once urged war veterans to homestead will turn into a ghost town.

"The federal government's decision is a travesty," Mr. Haddock said.

The Pacific Legal Foundation filed the request on behalf of the two water districts, which delivers water to the farmers, but the Interior Department decision said the water district does not have standing to file a request.

Interestingly, the request could have come from the Bureau of Reclamation, the same Interior Department agency that shut off the water.

Farm fields lie brown and barren, according to residents, and property values are plummeting because nearby waterways that farmers have relied on for nearly 100 years to irrigate fields are now off-limits.

Frustrated farmers have wrenched open the headgates to release water four times.

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