- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Top Bush administration officials today will turn on the water spigot for parched farmlands in Oregon and California cut off last year in what a scientific review now says has been a misguided effort to protect endangered species.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman will open the A canal head gates to begin delivering water to Klamath Reclamation Project farmers.

"This is an important step in assuring farmers and ranchers in this region have adequate water supplies," Miss Veneman said. "There is still a great deal of work to be done and this administration continues its commitment to help farmers and ranchers recover from losses suffered last year."

The irrigation water was cut off last summer after a long-term government study was issued saying the water instead was needed to protect two species of sucker fish and the coho salmon.

The cutoff during last year's drought bankrupt many farmers and cost the regional economy $134 million.

The water war drew national attention when armed federal agents were called in to stop farmers from forcing open the head gates. However, the farmers succeeded on four separate occasions in releasing water to their fields.

President Bush formed a working group March 1 to devise a long-term strategy to deliver water to the farmers and protect endangered species.

"The law and the condition of the basin can strain our discretion, but our objectives are clear," Mrs. Norton said.

"As the president has directed, our goals are to protect farm families, restore the health of the ecosystem, honor our trust and responsibility to tribes and recover endangered species," Mrs. Norton said.

Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, also will attend the canal-opening ceremony, which marks the traditional April 1 start of the irrigation season.

Mr. Smith accompanied Mr. Bush on Air Force One to tour Oregon earlier this year and discussed the situation in the Klamath Valley "for quite awhile," said Mr. Smith's spokesman.

"Farmers in the Klamath Basin can take this as a sign that their pleas are being heard at the highest levels. No longer is junk science going to be allowed to destroy the lives of working families in Oregon," Mr. Smith said.

"We may be opening the head gate today, but our job isn't done unless the water keeps flowing," Mr. Smith said.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study released Feb. 4 found there was "no sound scientific basis" that high levels of water in Klamath Lake and Klamath River would protect the endangered fish.

High levels of water in fact may have hurt some endangered fish, the report said.

The irrigation system will provide water to 1,400 farmers from April through September and federal officials expect to meet all water requirements, said Mark Pfeifle, Interior Department spokesman.

"We are pleased that we are beginning this irrigation season by providing water for the farmers," Mrs. Norton said.

Additionally, the Agriculture Department is spending $1.6 million in assistance for irrigation water management, and providing financial consulting for farmers in debt because of the cutoff.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation also will accelerate the construction of special screens by one year to keep the fish out of the canal and in the lake.

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