Drought-plagued farmers on the state's northern border asked federal officials Tuesday to take the unusual step of convening a little-used endangered species panel that could order restoration of irrigation water that has been diverted to protect salmon and suckerfish.
More than 1,400 farmers in the Klamath Basin, straddling the California-Oregon border, have seen water to about 200,000 acres of prime agricultural land cut off.
The Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned on behalf of two Klamath irrigation districts to urge federal officials to form a special committee--a seven-member panel known informally as the "God Squad"--to consider the farmers' plight. The committee would have the power to reverse an April decision that diverted irrigation water to help the endangered suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake and salmon downstream in the Klamath River.
"The most endangered species in Klamath now is its people, the farmers who have been producing food for America's dinner tables for decades," said Anne Hayes, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm. "We urge the God Squad to resolve this catastrophe."
Under federal law, the God Squad can be impaneled to determine if economic needs outweigh steps taken to protect species threatened by extinction. Composed of seven Cabinet-level officials, the panel has been assembled only three times before: for the whooping crane, the snail darter and the northwest spotted owl.
Farmers in the Klamath region insist that the fish can survive, despite one of the worst droughts in decades, even if water is diverted from the river to help support agriculture. They also argue that the science used to justify the decision to divert the water is suspect.
Environmentalists expressed confidence that the panel, if convened, would find that saving the fish promises greater economic benefits than allowing the farmers their historic water allotment.
"A lot of the subsidized farming in the Klamath Basin can be replaced," said Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "These endangered species cannot."
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., said the coastal economy has been racked for years because of dwindling salmon populations in the Klamath, once among California's most productive spawning grounds.
"For us this God Squad seems akin to calling in the Gestapo," Grader said. "You extinguish the fish and terminate the fisherman."
The water cutbacks have also imperiled a series of wetlands around Tulelake, a farm town on the state's northern border. The wildlife sanctuaries are a key stop on the Pacific Flyway and harbor the largest concentration of threatened bald eagles in the state.
"The problem is decades of mismanagement of water resources," said Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. "We need to restore the balance. . . . It's not going to be business as usual in the Klamath Basin."
A decision on convening the panel would be made jointly by the departments of Interior and Commerce. The agencies have 20 days to form the God Squad. A hearing would have to be held within 140 days and a decision made a month after that.
Though federal officials did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday, the Bush administration has lent a sympathetic ear to farmers. Vice President Dick Cheney said in a radio interview aired Tuesday that the salmon and suckerfish should not be protected at the expense of people.
"The priorities, it seems to me, are reversed," Cheney said during a 10-minute radio interview with the Northwest Agriculture Information Network in Salem, Ore. He also said that more flexibility needs to be built into federal statutes, "so we don't end up in these situations where we are literally affecting the livelihood of thousands of people."