President Bush said Tuesday that he has formed a federal working group that will play a role in returning irrigation water to the Klamath River Basin.

The Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group will advise the Bush administration on immediate and long-term steps to improve the quality and quantity of water flowing into the Klamath Basin.

“The issues facing farmers and ranchers in the Klamath region are critical,” said Ann Veneman, secretary of agriculture and task force member.

More than 1,400 farmers, both in California and Oregon, were unable to plant or irrigate during much of the 2001-growing season. The water they had used in the past was diverted under the Endangered Species Act.

Estimates indicate the loss of water affected 200,000 acres and led to $200 million in lost income, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

“One of the big constraints in delivering water to farmers and people is the need to make sure protected species are accommodated,” said Dave Kranz, water information director for the farm bureau. “The way the regulations are written now, the fish get the first call on the water.”

“We're talking about the Klamath River Basin today, but this issue could affect water to farms, cities and industries throughout California,” Kranz added.

The water cutoff to farmers and ranchers in the basin followed one of the region's worst droughts on record and was needed to save fish and bald eagles protected by the Endangered Species Act, federal officials said at the time.

Irrigators said the decision was based on questionable science, a claim that received support last month from the National Academy of Sciences. It concluded that government scientists did not have enough evidence to issue the biological opinions that cut off the irrigation water.

The working group will interact with farming and fishing interests, basin residents, environmental and water groups, government agencies, tribal governments and others in the region to try and find a solution.

The working group will be terminated in 18 months or at Bush's direction.

“We must bring about a resolution that meets the needs of the farmers while upholding the government's trust responsibilities and our commitment to the environment,” Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said.

Modesto Bee