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Cheney and the Klamath



Representative Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, will convene an oversight hearing on the role that Vice President Dick Cheney played in Klamath River Basin decisions leading to the Klamath fish kill of 2002. The hearing is set for July 31 in Washington D.C.

As reported in the Washington Post article, “Leaving No Tracks,” by Jo Becker and Barton Gellman on June 27, Cheney’s intervention in the development of a 10-year water plan for the Klamath River resulted in a September 2002 die-off of an estimated 68,000 to 80,000 adult salmon in the lower Klamath – the largest fish kill in U.S. history.

The cutoff of water was made in spite of evidence from state, federal, tribal and independent scientists that a fish kill was imminent in September because of low, warm water conditions that prevailed in the river when the salmon began their annual migration upriver. In the spring of 2002, hundreds of thousands of juvenile salmon and steelhead perished because of the low flows and high water temperatures as the fish moved downriver.

The article, the last in a series of four about Cheney’s dubious methods of “governance,” spurred Representative Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) and 35 other House Democrats from California and Oregon to send a letter to Rahall on June 27 requesting the hearing.

According to the Post article, Cheney called Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, to pressure her into adopting a change in policy for the Klamath River Basin that would benefit some farmers at the expense of protecting federally threatened salmon and suckers in order to win votes in Oregon. At stake was the reelection of Republican Senator Gordon Smith.

“His political interference resulted in a 10-year water plan for the Klamath River that has been unanimously ruled ‘arbitrary and capricious and in violation of the Endangered Species Act,’ by three courts,” said the letter. “Moreover his action resulted in the largest fish kill in the history of the west.”

The ramifications of that salmon kill are still being felt today, as returns of adult chinooks to the Klamath River are so low that commercial, recreational and tribal fishing seasons have been severely restricted over the past three years. Last year’s commercial fishing season for California and Oregon was cut by over 90 percent. It was the largest commercial fishing closure in the nation’s history, causing over $60 million in damages to coastal economies, according to the letter.

After requesting Rahall to hold oversight hearings on Cheney’s involvement in the Klamath Basin decisions, the Representatives said, “His blatant disregard for law cannot be ignored.”

Those signing the letter included Representatives Mike Thompson, George Miller, Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren, Sam Farr, Jim Costa, Howard Berman, Bob Fillner, Adam Schiff, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Brad Sherman, Dennis Cardoza, Tom Lantos, Peter DeFazio, Diane Watson, Linda Sanchez, Doris Matsui, David Wu, Barbara Lee, Jerry McNerney, Jane Harman, Hilda Solis, Pete Stark, Xavier Becerra, Mike Honda, Grace Napolitano, Susan Davis, Lynn Woolsey, Darlene Hooley, Carl Blumenauer, Ellen Tauscher, Loretta Sanchez, Lois Capps, Joe Baca, Maxine Waters and Henry Waxman.

On June 28, Rep. Rahall responded that the Resources Committee has already begun examining “the penchant for this Administration to favor politics over science” in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, as highlighted during a May 9th hearing and in the resignation of the Interior Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks over the fiasco.

“In light of the revelations being made over the situation in the Klamath River Basin, it is my intention to again convene the Committee to delve into the issues raised by the Members of Congress from California and Oregon,” said Rahall. “It certainly appears this Administration will stop at nothing to achieve political gain from natural resources disasters. Ultimately, it will be hardworking Americans and their healthy environment that will lose if we fail to act.”

Representative Thompson was pleased with Rahall’s commitment to investigate the vice president’s involvement in Klamath Basin decisions.

“The courts found that this water policy was in direct violation of the Endangered Species Act,” said Thompson, “and the American public should know if their vice president caused science to be manipulated for petty political gain.”

Hopefully, this hearing will expose the web of political manipulation of science that resulted in the 2002 fish kills ­ and the massive die-offs of juvenile salmon and steelhead that have taken place every year since because of poor water quality conditions in the Klamath system.

Cheney, Norton and others responsible for the Klamath fish disaster should be fully investigated and be held accountable for their actions. If it is determined that administration officials intervened as the Washington Post article contends, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Meanwhile, Klamath Basin Indian Tribes, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and conservationists are extremely concerned about the possibility of a major fish kill taking place this summer on the Klamath. The Klamath River’s salmon are again in big trouble as river temperatures rise and the region’s below average snow pack continues to recede.

These conditions, coupled with increased observation of disease, mortality, and average run size predictions, recently prompted the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team (KFHAT) to increase its fish kill readiness alert level to “yellow.” This group is a collaboration of agencies, tribes, and restoration organizations that formed during the summer of 2003 with the purpose of providing early warning and a coordinated response plan to avoid a fish kill.

In recent years massive numbers of juvenile salmon have perished every spring as several fish diseases plague the Klamath’s fish, according to Regina Chichizola, the Klamath Riverkeeper.

“These diseases are particularly lethal in combination with increased temperature and static flow conditions caused by the Klamath Dams. People monitoring the river have already reported seeing dead fish,” said Chichizola.

“These juvenile fish kills show that our salmon are on the road to extinction,” Leaf Hillman, Vice chairman of the Karuk Tribe stated. “If we don’t take bold steps like removing Warren Buffett’s four Klamath dams, we’ll soon be past the point of no return.”

On July 9, Keith Parker, a Yurok Tribal Member who lives in Requa at the mouth of the Klamath River, reported alarmingly high water temperatures in the lower river.

“We are headed for disaster again if something isn’t done immediately!” said Parker. “The Bureau of Reclamation cut our flows again, which raised the water temperature even more. Unbelievably, the water temperature at midnight this morning hit 76.2 degrees F, according to the real-time data from the Klamath Sensor Station (KNK) a few miles upriver from the mouth. As of 11:30 AM the sensor temperature has cooled a little, but is still 73.3 degrees F.”

“This may become another lethal event for these salmon just now entering the river. Some guides are reporting hooking 13 and landing 10 salmon in the estuary, so the salmon are coming in thick. We need help now,” he emphasized.

Warren Buffett in May refused to meet with representatives of Indian Tribes, commercial fishing groups and conservation organizations that traveled all of the way from the West Coast to the annual shareholders meeting of Buffett’s Berkshire-Hathaway, the parent company that own’s PacifiCorp’s dams on the Klamath, in Omaha, Nebraska. Buffett, the so-called “Oracle of Omaha,” must be held accountable for standing in the way of dam removal and restoration of salmon and steelhead runs in the Klamath Basin.

DAN BACHER can be reached at:




Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher

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