Disappointing hundreds of Klamath River Basin farmers, the Bush administration Friday declined to convene an obscure but powerful panel to decide if the Endangered Species Act is unfairly depriving them of water.
The news ended the farmers' hopes that federal officials would circumvent the act and release irrigated water to drought-stricken fields along the California-Oregon border. Farmers had looked to Washington for support in a summerlong controversy widely portrayed as a battle between people and rare fish.
In a letter released late Friday, however, two top Bush administration officials concluded that legal technicalities prevent the convening of the Endangered Species Committee--known as the "God Squad" because of its power to decide the fate of a species--to grant an exemption from endangered species protections on the farmers' behalf.
The ultimate arbiter of such matters, the panel has been summoned only three times since it was written into law nearly a quarter-century ago. Its earlier decisions involved the snail darter, the whooping crane and the northern spotted owl.
Now it appears the panel will not weigh in on the fate of the coho salmon and the two suckerfish species that have become targets in the Klamath water wars.
Two irrigation districts seeking an exemption do not qualify under federal law to make that request, said the letter, signed by U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Scott B. Gudes, acting undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere. Such requests can come only from a federal agency, a governor or a "permit or license applicant," they wrote.
Even so, the letter added: "We wish to take this opportunity to emphasize that this administration is deeply concerned about the severe economic circumstances your clients face and is committed to working with all affected parties, including the districts, to work out a solution to this difficult problem."
In the Klamath River Basin, some reacted with anger.
"I was holding out hope," said Monte Seus, who farms on the California side near the small town of Tulelake. "But it seems at every turn they throw a roadblock in front of us. So I guess I'm not surprised."
At the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based conservative land-rights group that petitioned for the panel on behalf of the two irrigation districts, officials vowed to fight on, possibly by filing a lawsuit challenging the decision.
"They're passing the buck," said David Haddock, a foundation attorney. "This is a technical reading that gets the government away from its responsibility of making a decision."
But environmentalists applauded the decision, particularly because it comes from a White House administration that has so far been seen as far from eco-friendly.
"I think it speaks well for the Bush administration," said Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "Whatever their biases, they looked at what is at stake. And what is at stake was these species becoming extinct."
The exemption sought by the districts would have required the panel to decide if the farmers' economic plight during a severe drought outweighs the needs of the rare fish.
The committee, a cabinet-level administrative court, would consist of the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture and the Amy, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advises and the administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Irrigation System Closed to Protect Fish
The federal Bureau of Reclamation decided in April to shut off most water to the region's irrigation system so that it could maintain water levels to protect the fish.
The decision enraged farmers and triggered protests, vandalism and pleas for support from the Bush White House. An Independence Day protest escalated into vandalism when farmers forced open a head gate and released precious water.
On Friday night, farmers had forced a gate open again, said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.
But McCracken said his office was holding back on any action--including closing the gate--fearing an escalation of the emotionally charged situation.
The local sheriff's department and U.S. marshals were on hand, but McCracken said they also refrained from intervening, for similar reasons.
" We consider this to be a water resource issue," he said. "We don't want to escalate it into anything that might cause bodily harm."
Some scientists and environmentalists have cautioned against portraying the Klamath water wars as a matter of farmers versus fish. They recalled the first time the Endangered Species Committee convened, ruling in favor of the tiny fish that nearly halted a Tennessee dam project in the 1970s.
"You want to look at the total picture," said David Wilcove, senior ecologist at Environmental Defense and an expert on endangered species laws. "It was never just a case of the snail darter or the dam. It was the snail darter and the river and trout-fishing versus the dam and whatever benefits the dam would bring."
Some said Friday the decision will clear the plate for all involved to begin focusing on long-term solutions to the crisis, chief among them efforts to buy land from farmers who are willing to sell. Only then, they say, can the water demands be reduced on a federal irrigation system that has been stretched too far.