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Friday the 13th was a bleak day indeed for the 1,400 farm families of the Klamath Basin Project, whose efforts to obtain water for their fields and crops have been repeatedly dashed over the last several months.
Yesterday, the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Interior summarily rejected a formal petition by two irrigation districts in the 240,000-acre project area to convene the special cabinet-level Endangered Species Committee -– the so-called God Squad –- an ad-hoc group of agency heads that has the power to grant exemptions to agency decisions made under the Endangered Species Act.
Pacific Legal Foundation -– a Sacramento, Calif., public interest law firm that advocates property rights and reform of the Endangered Species Act –- filed a formal petition July 2 on behalf of the Klamath and Tulelake Irrigation Districts requesting the convening of the God Squad in hopes it would,
after sensible review, reverse the unprecedented rulings made this
spring by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine
Fisheries Service (a division of the Department of Commerce), to deny all water for irrigation to the farmers of the project in order to maintain a high water level in Klamath Lake ostensibly for the
benefit of two species of sucker fish, and in the Klamath River for the coho salmon –- the three species having been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
As discussed earlier by WorldNetDaily, the
shut-off of water was the first time in the 100-year history of the project that water had been completely denied to the farmers of the project.
The foundation learned of the rejection late yesterday afternoon. In a two-page response, Interior Secretary Gail Norton and Acting Undersecretary of Commerce Scott Gudes informed Pacific Legal Foundation that
the Committee would not be convened to examine the issue –- the reason given being that the irrigation districts “lacked
“Although the Districts are not eligible to file an application for exemption under [the Endangered Species Act], 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,” secretaries Norton and Gudes wrote.
“We specifically invite you to continue working, as your clients have in the past, with Sue Ellen Woolridge, Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary Norton and Craig O’Connor, Acting General Counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the Department of
Commerce, to seek long-range cooperative solutions to these difficult problems.”
It shocked the petitioners’ legal team.
“The people of the Klamath Basin have been victimized once again by their government, which has again turned a deaf ear to Klamath communities in crisis,” said PLF attorney David Haddock in a press
“It says that communities that are economically devastated by reckless
bureaucratic decisions under the Endangered Species Act have no recourse for getting the administration to reconsider those decisions,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the federal government continues to suffer from a drought of common sense on the Klamath issue,” said Haddock. “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.”
The Endangered Species Committee, on which the farmers had pinned their hopes, is a ad-hoc group composed of the secretaries of Agriculture, Interior, the Army, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers,
the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and one individual from each affected state. Gale Norton, as secretary
of the Interior, is the chair of the committee.
Attorney Harold Johnson, who is also with Pacific Legal Foundation, explained to WorldNetDaily the reasons given for the decision. The act provides that the committee may be called by a federal agency,
the governor of the state in which an agency action will occur, or “a permit or license applicant may apply to the Secretary for an exemption for an agency action if, after consultation under section 7(a)(2) of the
Act, the Secretary’s opinion indicates that the agency action would violate section 7(a)(2) of the Act.”
Governors Gray Davis of California and John Kitzhaber of Oregon had refused to reply to requests that they petition. The Bureau of Reclamation -– the federal agency in charge of the project –- also declined.
That left only the irrigation districts. Secretary Gail Norton has effectively closed that door.
“They used the argument that the irrigation districts don’t have standing to bring a petition,” Johnson said. “We argued that the irrigation districts fall under the provision of being a permanent applicant or a licensed applicant because they hold licenses or contracts and are seeking to have those continued and not suspended. But
they relied on a hyper-technical interpretation that implies that only
if you are seeking something in the future, applying for something that will come in the future, do you have standing. But if you have some kind of license, permit or contract at the present time that you are seeking to have continued, that doesn’t give you standing.”
“We think it’s a travesty,” Johnson contined. “The practical effect is to deny a lot of parties in a lot of situations the opportunity to get a top-level review of reckless, bureaucratic oppression under the
Endangered Species Act.”
Johnson had suspicions about the timing of the response.
“They very cleverly waited till Friday afternoon to send it,” he noted. “It came down late in a very skillful effort to minimize its impact. They have indicated in a number of ways that they do not want to bring a lot of attention to this issue or the petition for the God Squad.”
John Crawford, 53, a third-generation farmer in the Project and a member of the board of directors of the Tulelake Irrigation District, explained to WorldNetDaily earlier this week the reasoning behind the request.
“People misunderstand that when you petition for the God Squad to be convened you’re saying the choice has come down to a case of human activity or the activity of the species involved, and that one or the
other is going to be sacrificed. That is not the case, and certainly that is not the issue that’s being taken forth to the God Squad. It’s our contention that we’ve coexisted with both the sucker fish and the
coho for a long, long time through serious droughts in the past, with no measurable impact to either of the species involved or to the wildlife refuges that depend on the return flow from agriculture, and we can
certainly continue to do so in the future as long as the Bureau of Reclamation has the flexibility it had in 1992 and 1994 to manage this very limited resource. Right now there is no flexibility at all.”
Crawford recalled that the districts of the project had voluntarily rationed the water during those drought years, saving thousands of acre-feet of water.
“In both those years the Tulelake Irrigation District made a decision in
the spring of those years to completely shut the system down eight weeks early in the fall,” he explained. “And we also had a tremendous amount of regulation that we developed ourselves as far as changing of
traditional cultural practices in the fall. Normally we will go in and fall-till that ground and irrigate it, and we didn’t allow for any of that. We didn’t allow any fall irrigation of harvested crops. We saved
about 50,000-acre feet of water in both ’92 and ’94. Not only did we save that water, we designated where we wanted that saved water to go – which was to the wildlife refuges, down the river for the salmon, and to be left in the lake for suckers.”
Convening the God Squad has a couple of purposes, Crawford explained: “One, it is not to say, OK, we’re in such dire straits agriculturally and economically community-wise, that we’re willing to sacrifice either
of these species. That is not the case at all. We’re not asking for all the water: we never had, we never will. We’re just asking for it to be shared equitably. We’re asking the God Squad to make the determination
that our activities are certainly not going to cause any extinction, and are not even going to cause any negative impact, based on what has happened historically.
“The other thing it does is to bring the Department of Interior and the Department of Commerce to the negotiating table in a meaningful way, to become engaged with us, the water users, to try to come up with some
long-term, long-range solutions that makes sense for the species and for these small communities where these devastating decisions have been made.
“We’re talking about four communities here that have no other economic activity except agriculture. Every single aspect of these communities is one-hundred percent dependent upon agriculture. The schools, the
churches, the businesses, the labor force that allows our agriculture entity to exist, are all so dependent and interrelated with agriculture that without it they will cease to exist. The schools will close, people
are going to be asked to pick up and move on. We’re talking about veterans of World War I and II that were invited to come onto this land, with the promise that they would have it forever. And now the government
is saying that even though they’ve upheld their part of the bargain, and spent a hundred years helping feed a hungry world, they’re saying it’s not a good idea any more, we’ve changed our minds; we’re going to become dependent for all of our food resources and our petroleum on countries
that don’t like us very well to begin with.
“We don’t think that’s a very good idea,” he concluded.
Since the decision came down so late in the day on Friday, many of those concerned have not learned of it. Crawford could not be contacted for comment.