WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Thursday angrily accused federal fishery officials of using scientific reports to cover up the depth of the risks to salmon populations from the diversion of river water to farming on the West Coast.
The result, they said during a hostile hearing, was that salmon stocks collapsed, forcing state and federal authorities to ban salmon fishing earlier this year.
"We're devastated, and our communities are devastated," said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif. "They haven't been using good science. It's sophomoric. People are losing their livelihoods."
Capps' comments came during a break in a House Natural Resources fisheries subcommittee hearing at which a dozen or so West Coast Democrats showed up to grill Rodney McInnis, administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service's regional office in Long Beach, Calif.
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The hearing came a day after the House approved a huge farm bill containing $170 million in economic disaster funding for commercial fishermen and fishing communities as a result of the recent closure of the salmon season because of perilously low numbers of fish returning to the Sacramento River to spawn.
The closure followed a sharp reduction in the season two years ago because of low returns to the Klamath River and continuing problems with Columbia River salmon.
Common to all three river systems are NMFS biological opinions some of which federal courts later rejected as failing to use the best available science or otherwise failing to look broadly at the health of the fish in deciding the impacts of diverting river water for farming.
One such report supported a Bureau of Reclamation plan to divert water to farming interests from the Klamath River on the California-Oregon border. But the plan allowed the river's level to drop so low and its water to become so warm that more than 30,000 salmon died in 2002, the largest fish die-off in U.S. history. The full result of that die-off wasn't felt for years, however, when fisheries had to be closed because the fish that had died had not laid eggs and reproduced.
Democrats charged that the failure to predict the impact of such water diversions was part of a pattern of abuse of science by the Bush administration.
"Along with a fishing failure, this is the failure of an agency," declared Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.
"I worry that science is used to justify a decision," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
"I assure you, this is not the situation," said McInnis.
Idaho Rep. Bill Sali, one of the few Republicans attending, charged that Democrats were "using the closure of the Pacific fishery to further a (political) agenda."
But McInnis acknowledged that there had been problems with his agency's work and insisted that steps are being taken to correct them.
Outside, independent scientists are now reviewing the agency's opinions, he said. The agency also is looking more deeply at what it takes to recover endangered stocks.
McInnis said the first results of this broader consultation should appear in September, when the agency releases its draft opinion on California's Central Valley Project and the vast irrigation system's impact on salmon.
"How will they know we've fixed the problems?" McInnis said during a brief interview. "An intermediate step is what the courts will say about us doing our job. But ultimately we've got to get the fish to come back."
The cause of the Sacramento River salmon collapse is still a matter of dispute, with some thinking it relates to water quality and agriculture diversions from the San Francisco Bay Delta. McInnis said his scientists believe the cause is related to poor ocean conditions for the fish.