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Gag the Messenger, Kill the Fish

Gag the Messenger, Kill the Salmon

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Last month more than 35,000 salmon died in the lower Klamath River, smothered by low flows, tepid waters and political indifference. At the time, Bush officials attributed the salmon die-off to a freak of nature. "More water wouldn’t have done those fish any good," offered John Keys, head of the US Bureau of Reclamation.

This remarkable observation was entirely self-serving. After all, Keys is the one who had ordered Klamath water diverted from the river and into irrigation ditches for farmers in southern Oregon.

Now comes proof that Keys was lying. Not only did the Bush crowd know that increased flows were vital to the survival of Klamath salmon and steelhead, but they were told so by their own biologists. Twice.

Michael Kelly is a top biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with protecting sea-going fish, such as salmon and stealhead trout. Kelly led the team that reviewed the situation on the Klamath River, which flows from southern Oregon through northern California. For the past couple of years, irrigators and salmon defenders have been locked in a pitched battle over how the river’s water should be divided between the potato and alfalfa fields and the fish.

None of the native fish in the Klamath River system are doing very good. But the suckerfish and the coho salmon, both once staples in the diet of the Klamath River tribes, are teetering on the brink of extinction and both are afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act. Kelly’s task was to develop a plan that provided enough water to ensure the survival of the coho.

In April, Kelly’s team also reviewed the Bureau of Reclamation’s 10-year plan for allocating the river’s water and concluded that it would place the coho in jeopardy. Kelly’s report soon ended up at the Justice Department, where Ashcroft’s lawyers sent back a stinging rebuke ordering Kelly to rewrite his biological opinion.

Kelly issued a new opinion two weeks later, reaching the same conclusion and backing it up with more science and detailed legal analysis. This too was rejected.

Instead, the Bush administration adopted the irrigators’ plan, hastily developed by the National Academy of Sciences, which slashed by more than 43 percent the river flows recommended by the biologists, a clear violation of the Endangered Species Act.

"Obviously someone at a higher level order the service to accept this new plan," Kelly says.

When Kelly objected, he was told by his superiors to shut up and sign off on the irrigator’s plan. He refused. Now Kelly is seeking protection as a whistleblower from a federal court.

He’s wise to seek such protection. Other federal scientists who have spoken out about the Bush administration’s environmentally hostile maneuvers have not fared well.

Recall Ian Thomas, the former cartographer at the US Geological Survey who was fired in March of 2001 after he posted to a website maps showing how caribou calving areas would be despoiled by Bush’s plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

In March of 2002, Eric Shaeffer, head of regulatory enforcement at the EPA, resigned in disgust after the White House kept him from pursuing legal actions against power plants violating the Clean Air Act and then slashed his enforcement division’s staff by 200 positions, effectively gutting the agency.

Then there is Jim Martin, the former Ombudsman at the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned in protest after EPA director, Christie Todd Whitman, ordered his office disbanded and sent FBI agents to seize his files and equipment. At the time, Martin was investigating the EPA’s mishandling of Superfund sites in New Jersey, a probe that had uncovered unflattering information about Whitman’s (and her husband’s) deals with polluters during her tenure as governor.

The suppression of Kelly’s report echoes similar attacks on federal scientists during the first Bush administration, when White House chief of staff John Sununu quashed reports from biologists linking logging in the forests of the Pacific Northwest to the drastic decline of the northern spotted owl.

Kelly says that in addition to ditching his report, the Bush administration also prohibited him from analyzing the risks to coho salmon posed by diverting Klamath River waters to Oregon farmers, another trouncing of the Endangered Species Act.

Would more water have saved those salmon? Sure. The big question is where the water should have come from. On that point, there’s plenty of room for debate and for blame.

The upper Klamath basin irrigators in Oregon are greedy bullies, on that there’s no doubt. But they’ve got a point when they say they’re not the only drain on the Klamath River. Indeed, their share of Klamath River water pales when compared to the amount sucked up by California agribusiness and the chipmakers of Silicon Valley.

The Trinity River, which slices through steep canyons in northern California, is the Klamath River’s biggest tributary.

The Oregon irrigators rightly contend that the water from Klamath Lake is warmer and thus less useful for salmon than the frigid waters of the Trinity.

Yet, more than 90 percent of the Trinity’s annual flow never reaches the Klamath, at the confluence of the two rivers thirty miles from the Pacific Ocean. Instead, it is captured behind 540-foot tall Trinity Dam and redirected southward through the Clear Creek tunnel under the Trinity Alps Mountains into the Sacramento River. This is just the beginning of the Trinity’s torturous 400-mile route to the Southland, through the Delta-Mendota Canal, the California Aqueduct and finally onto the fields of the Westlands Water District in the Central Valley. The whole scheme represents an evil masterpiece of geo-political plumbing.

At 605,000 acres, the Westlands District is bigger than the state of Rhode Island and perhaps even more powerful politically. It is the largest irrigation district in the nation, the most profitable and the most lavishly subsidized. It is also one of the most polluted. When the Trinity’s water finally filters out of the cotton, lettuce and tomato fields of the Westlands, it emerges laden with pesticides and highly poisonous selenium into San Joaquin River, then into the marshes of the San Francisco Bay delta.

The giant farms of the Westlands Water District have laid claims to more than 1.15 million-acre feet of water Trinity/Klamath river system. That’s nearly twice as much as the Oregon farmers. These California farms generate about $3 billion in sales. But they also enjoy at least a billion dollars in direct federal subsidies.

Of course, the Westlands is not by nature farming country. It’s essentially desert and savanna-parched, dusty and hot-and depends entirely upon imported water, which the district guards ruthlessly through an army of lawyers, lobbyists and politicians.

In 2000, Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who now lobbies for the California water company Cadiz Inc., made a timid attempt to increase flows down in the Trinity by a meager 20 percent. Even this approach was met with fierce resistance from the Westlands farmers, who persuaded a federal judge to slap an injunction on the plan. Babbitt backed down. And the Bush administration says they’re hands are tied by the courts, even if they wanted to do something– which, of course, they don’t.

And the so fish have paid the price. In the entire Klamath/Trinity basin, less than 20 percent of the original salmon spawning habitat remains in anything approaching a viable condition. The coho population is has been decimated. In fact, decimated is an understatment: the coho population has plumetted by more than 90 percent since the 1950s.

An initial tally of the dead salmon from September’s die-off shows that more than half of the fish were headed for the Trinity River to spawn. The death toll of 35,000 (which federal biologists now admit is "conservative") amounts to about a third of the river’s annual run.

With so much at stake, it’s distressing to see how little of a fight the environmental movement has put up, not only to save the Klamath salmon but also to defend what remains of the Endangered Species Act, as the Bush crowd rips its teeth out one by one. Yes, the Sierra Club and others flailed away at the Oregon farmers. But they are easy targets. There aren’t many of them and they live in a rural, Republican district with little political muscle. But they’ve said precious little about the grave situation on the Trinity. The enviros have no doubt gagged themselves in order not to irritate Democratic politicians in California who are in bed with Big Ag.

In the end, if the salmon have any kind of chance it resides with people like Michael Kelly, who put their careers on the line to save the river, and the tribes of the Klamath basin, who haven’t stopped fighting for their treaty rights in the last 100 years.

"We are the people behind the fish," says Troy Fletcher of the Yurok Tribe.

At least the salmon don’t stand alone.