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US Environmental Record

Klamath Basin Fish Kill

Project: US Environmental Issues
Open-Content project managed by Derek, mtuck

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A Klamath River farmer and prospective voter.A Klamath River farmer and prospective voter. [Source: Sierra Times]Interior Department official Sue Ellen Woodbridge is contacted, to her surprise and initial disbelief, by Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney is concerned with a situation developing in Oregon, a battleground electoral state that the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign had lost by less than half a percentage point in November 2000. Drought-stricken ranchers and farmers—largely Republican in makeup—are clamoring for the irrigation water they need to keep their croplands and pastures green. [Washington Post, 6/27/2007] The farmers and ranchers of the area are key to the re-election of Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). [CounterPunch, 7/16/2007] But federal biologists say that the Endangered Species Act gives the government no choice: if the water is released, two imperiled species of fish will be gravely impacted. Both science and the law are on the side of the fish, but Cheney steps in, apparently more out of political concerns for Oregon than for the farmers and ranchers. According to Cheney’s aides, he first looks for a way around the law. According to an Oregon congressman who lobbies for the farmers, when Cheney finds no way to circumvent the law, he instead attacks the science protecting the fish (see April 2002). The government eventually declares, in spite of all scientific evidence, that the water release and subsequent draining of the Klamath River basin will not harm the fish. Instead, the water release causes the largest fish kill in modern Western history (see September 2002). Cheney’s role in the fish kill will not be revealed until 2007. [Washington Post, 6/27/2007] After the Washington Post reveals Cheney’s role in the fish kill, the House will open hearings on Cheney’s activities (see June 27-28, 2007).

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Endangered Species Act, Gordon Smith, Sue Ellen Woodbridge, US Department of the Interior

Category Tags: Wildlife protection, Corruption, Environmental enforcement, Politicization and deception, Klamath Basin Fish Kill

Michael Kelly, a federal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, heads a team for the National Marine Fisheries Service which is charged with reviewing the Bureau of Reclamation’s 10-year plan for allocating the Klamath River’s water. The team completes a report concluding that the Bureau’s plan would jeopardize the coho salmon, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The report makes its way to lawyers at the Justice Department who reject Kelly’s findings and order him to rewrite his biological opinion. Two weeks later, Kelly submits a new report reaffirming the team’s earlier findings, but supported by more scientific and detailed legal analysis. The recommendations are again rejected. Against the team’s advice, the Bureau of Land management will approve lower water levels for the Klamath River, based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, which Kelly refuses to endorse. “Obviously someone at a higher level order the service to accept this new plan,” Kelly will observe. The decision will lead to the death of 33,000 salmon and steelhead trout (see September 2002). [Associated Press, 5/20/2004]

Entity Tags: Bureau of Land Management, Michael Kelly, National Academy of Sciences

Category Tags: Wetlands, Endangered species, Politicization and deception, Klamath Basin Fish Kill

More than 33,000 spawning salmon and steelhead trout die in the lower Klamath River due to the rivers abnormally low water level (see November 18, 2003). The fish succumb to “gill rot” which spreads rampantly among the fish as a result of warm water temperatures caused by the river’s shallow waters. The lower water-level is a result of the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to cut the river’s flow to 750 cubic-feet per second and divert the remaining water to farmers for irrigation. The decision was made against the recommendations of two reports by a team of government biologists (see April 2002). [High Country News, 6/23/2003; Associated Press, 5/20/2004]

Category Tags: Wetlands, Endangered species, Klamath Basin Fish Kill, Key Events

The US Fish and Wildlife Service accepts the blame for a government policy that resulted in the largest fish kill in history. The US Fish and Wildlife Service admits that its decision (see April 2002) to authorize a water diversion in the Upper Klamath Basin for the benefit of commercial agriculture, trapped migrating Chinook, Coho salmon, and other species in stagnant water, killing some 33,000 fish (see September 2002). [US Fish and Wildlife Service, 11/7/2003 pdf file; San Francisco Chronicle, 11/19/2003]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), US Fish and Wildlife Service

Category Tags: Wildlife protection, Agribusiness, Klamath Basin Fish Kill

Michael Kelly, a federal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, resigns complaining that “threatened coho salmon in the Klamath basin still do not have adequate flow conditions to assure their survival” and that his recommendations continue to be politicized by higher-ups. Kelley had previously blown the whistle on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after they had twice rejected the recommendations of a team he headed for the National Marine Fisheries Service (see April 2002). The BLM decision to ignore the recommendations led to the death of 33,000 steelhead and federally protected salmon in the Klamath River (see September 2002), the largest fish kill in US history. More recently, Kelly explains, his regional manager, Jim Lecky, has attempted to overide a study he conducted concluding that a levee repair proposed by the California Department of Fish and Game on the 120-acre Eel River Wildlife Area would endanger California Coastal Chinook salmon and adversely impact Dungeness crab, herring, larval rockfish, eelgrass, other salmonids and the overall ecosystem. “[A]ny amount of caution would dictate that this project never be considered,” he says in a resignation letter he will release on May 19. He says the motivation behind the project appears to be concentrating “certain species of ducks into a smaller area for hunting purposes.” Kelly adds that his position is supported by fisheries biologists within the Department of Fish and Game as well as local wetland scientists and ornithologists. He will also say in his letter that there is low morale among the NOAA Fisheries staff in the region and that his colleagues are “embarrassed and disgusted by the agency’s apparent misuse of science.” [PEER, 5/19/2004; Kelly, 5/19/2004; Associated Press, 5/20/2004]

Entity Tags: Jim Lecky, Michael Kelly

Category Tags: Wetlands, Appointments and resignations, Endangered species, Klamath Basin Fish Kill

Some of the tens of thousands of salmon killed due to the artificial water lowering by the Department of the Interior.Some of the tens of thousands of salmon killed due to the artificial water lowering by the Department of the Interior. [Source: Environmental News Service]The House Natural Resources Committee, led by Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), decides to investigate the role of Vice President Dick Cheney in a 2002 salmon kill (see April 2002) on Northern California’s Klamath River, the largest fish kill in modern Western history (see September 2002). “We know where the smoking gun lays,” says Chris Lawson, a fisherman and president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association. No one in Northern California or Oregon (another state affected by the fish kill) knew of Cheney’s role until a recent story in the Washington Post uncovered Cheney’s successful attempt to subvert both scientific evidence and the Endangered Species Act to allow a water release that drastically lowered the water level in the Klamath. The day the article appears, Thompson and 35 other Democrats call for a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee, saying in a letter that “[t]he ramifications of that salmon kill are still being felt today as returns to the Klamath River are so low that commercial, sport and tribal fishing seasons have been curtailed for the past three years.” A day later, Rahall agrees. The hearing will be held a month later (see August 1, 2007). In October 2002, Thompson piled 500 pounds of dead coho salmon in front of the Interior Department, accusing that agency of “gross mismanagement” in the wildlife disaster. Now Thompson asks, “We know that science was manipulated and the law was violated. Did in fact the vice president of the United States put pressure on mid-level bureaucrats to alter the science and circumvent the law in order to gain political votes for his re-election or the election of other people in Oregon?” Cheney’s office responds to the hearings by saying it is “disappointing the Democrats would rather investigate than legislate,” and that the Post story is nothing more than “a repackaging of old accusations.” Cheney’s office refuses to say whether Cheney will agree to testify before the committee. The reduced river flow in 2002, says Thompson, “wasn’t about salmon or water, it was about electoral votes in Oregon.” Since the fish kill, the courts have prohibited the diversion of Klamath water for agricultural use once the water levels drop below a critical point. But in the years after the fish kill, the salmon catch has been gravely reduced. Commercial fishing in California and Oregon has suffered a more than 90% drop as recently as 2006; Congressional Democrats say the result has been over $60 million in damage to coastal economies. Only in 2007 have the number of young salmon in the Klamath shown indications that salmon numbers may once again be increasing. [Associated Press, 6/28/2007; Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, 7/9/2007] However, the Klamath salmon are still gravely threatened by rampant fish diseases infesting tens of thousands of juvenile salmon, as well as abnormally high water temperatures and low water levels. [CounterPunch, 7/16/2007]

Entity Tags: Mike Thompson, Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association, Chris Lawson, House Natural Resources Committee, Nick Rahall, US Department of the Interior, Washington Post, Endangered Species Act, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Category Tags: Corruption, Corporate welfare, Endangered species, Environmental enforcement, Klamath Basin Fish Kill

Representative Nick Rahall.Representative Nick Rahall. [Source: Nick Rahall]The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to investigate the role that Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials played in the decision that led to the largest fish kill in modern Western United States history (see Mid-2001 - Early 2002 and June 27-28, 2007). The committee is unable to find conclusive proof that Cheney directly gave the orders that led to the fish kill. A former Interior Department official, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, testifies that Cheney pressured the department to release water in the Klamath River in Northern California, even though the water release would threaten the life cycle of tens of thousands of salmon who live and breed in the river. The water release was to benefit drought-stricken farmers and ranchers in the area. The decision went against the provisions of the Endangered Species Act as well as an overwhelming majority of scientific opinion and the tribal water rights of local Native Americans. Former fisheries biologist Michael Kelly, who worked on the Klamath issue, testifies that he cannot be sure whether Cheney interfered in the situation. “I was aware that President Bush had declared he’d do everything he could to get water to the farms,” Kelly says, and adds that he knew his own superiors were being pressured to speed up assessments and tilt the science to favor the farmers. “I was essentially asked to support a conclusion that made as much sense as 1+1=3,” Kelly says. The biological opinion underlying the plan was “completely bogus and illegal,” he adds. Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) calls the Klamath fish kill “a fiasco” and lambasts Cheney and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for refusing to testify before the committee. “I will not pretend to be surprised [Cheney] declined our invitation,” Rahall says. “But I am obliged to express disappointment at the difficulty we have had in trying to learn the truth and conduct basic oversight over an agency and an administration that have made secrecy and lack of accountability hallmarks of their tenure.” Rahall notes that “[w]hen it comes to political interference and ethical lapses at the department, the Klamath River is just the tip of the iceberg.… I find it difficult to see how we can trust any decision made in an agency that has, time and again, betrayed its own career scientists, repeatedly failed to hold its appointees to ethical standards and so callously disregarded its mission for the sake of political gain.” [Environmental News Service, 8/1/2007]

Entity Tags: Endangered Species Act, Bush administration (43), Dirk Kempthorne, George W. Bush, House Natural Resources Committee, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Mary Kendall, US Department of the Interior, Michael Kelly, Nick Rahall

Category Tags: Wildlife protection, Corruption, Endangered species, Environmental enforcement, Politicization and deception, Klamath Basin Fish Kill

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