House Hearing Fails To Link Klamath
Fish Kill To VP Cheney
Little new information surfaced at a House committee
hearing on alleged Bush administration arm-twisting over the
science developed by federal agencies charged with enforcing
the Endangered Species Act.
The House Natural Resources Committee met July 31 to look
at the question of the current administration's political
influence on federal science and decision-making.
The committee invited both Vice President Dick Cheney and
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, but neither appeared.
However, it did get an earful from Mary Kendall, deputy
inspector general for the Department of Interior, who
reviewed the investigation into the conduct of an Interior
deputy assistant administrator, Julie MacDonald, a political
The inspector general's office found that MacDonald had
provided nonpublic information to friends outside the
government, including some who were involved in litigation
against the feds.
MacDonald has since resigned and the Interior Department
is reviewing nine listing decisions that may have been
In oral testimony, Kendall said her office did not
investigate the conduct of Cheney in ESA matters,
particularly over the situation in the Klamath Basin, where
a June 27 Washington Post story said the vice
president's actions aided farmers after old Cheney friend
and former Oregon congressman Robert Smith had asked for
The Post says Cheney intervened on behalf of
farmers in the dispute over water releases after the Bureau
of Reclamation shut irrigators down in 2001 to protect two
listed species of suckerfish in the basin and ESA-listed
coho much farther downriver.
Cheney reportedly received weekly briefings on the
Klamath situation from Sue Ellen Wooldridge, the
19th-ranking official at the Interior Department, and later
suggested the department ask the National Academy of
Science's National Research Council (NRC) to study the water
A panel convened by the Academy in 2002 produced an
interim report released later that year, and a final one in
2004. Both found that the water management regime that
shorted farmers was not justified scientifically, for either
the suckerfish or the coho.
At that point, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to
implement a flow regime that was more beneficial to farmers.
But in September 2002, high water temperatures in the
Klamath led to the deaths of 30,000 to 60,000 chinook from
parasites (depending on which agency did the estimating).
Several hundred coho also died, but most were hatchery fish,
with only a few dozen estimated to be from the wild ESA-listed
NRC panel chair William Lewis, from the University of
Colorado, told the House committee that his group found some
agency decisions regarding the Klamath Project that cut
irrigation water in 2001 "had been contradicted by data
collected [lake levels, flows] at the project."
The panel concluded that stricter operation of the
project was unlikely to benefit the ESA-listed fish. But the
panel also found that a later agency proposal to widen water
management parameters from the preceding decade also could
not be scientifically justified.
Lewis said his group did not think the flows from the
Klamath Project were the main factor in the fish kill, which
provided only 10 percent of the flows to the Lower Klamath
that year. He said the region was in the grip of a drought
at the time, flows were very low, and once the fish kill was
reported, the question came up whether the Klamath project
operations were responsible for killing the 33,000 chinook
out of a total run of 170,000 fish.
The NRC panel found that going back to 1988, there were
five big drought years in the Klamath with no salmon
mortality, and in some of those years, flows were lower than
in 2002. "We began to think, this is not simply a matter of
flow," said Lewis.
He said the committee decided that the Klamath Project
was not likely to blame, because it had been operated the
same way since 1990, and was located so far from the mouth
of the river where the fish had died.
Lewis also noted that the project water is warm because
it comes from storage reservoirs. "The salmon that are
migrating need cool water, particularly the early migrating
fish, which includes the chinook," he said.
However, when the salmon were piling into the lower river
and staged for migrating, they waited for a signal like a
cool flow caused by a little rain. "They waited too long
because they didn't get the signal, and disease overtook
them and killed a portion of them," Lewis told the
But ex-NMFS biologist Michael Kelly disagreed. As author
of a draft BiOp for the Klamath Project on the listed coho,
Kelly said he left the agency in 2004 after his analysis was
ignored, and a BiOp was completed that he considered
Later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did rule it
illegal, and Klamath project flows have been bumped up to
account for about 40 percent of the total flow in the lower
part of the river, according to Kelly. He says, if more
flows had been available in 2002, "there would have been
more water, which would have made it, possibly, easier for
the fish to move upstream and avoid the crowded conditions.
That's also [flows] the only thing you have control over."
Kelly said, in 2001 while he was working on the draft
BiOp, his supervisor had informed him that Cheney had been
briefed on the consultation. That was the only time the vice
president was mentioned to him during the consultation.
In written testimony, however, after his work had been
rejected, he suspected it was because it did not agree with
the interim NRC report. A different BiOp was then put
together by higher ups, like Jim Lecky, NMFS assistant
administrator for the Southwest region. In his written
testimony, Kelly said it was obvious to him that "someone up
the chain of command was applying a tremendous amount of
pressure on Mr. Lecky. There's simply no other explanation
for anyone in NMFS developing or accepting such a completely
bogus and illegal BiOp."
Kelly refused to work on it after that, and filed a
whistleblower disclosure after the 2002 fish kill.
At the hearing, Congressman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asked
NRC panel chair Lewis if it was true that "the Bush
Administration played the NRC like a fiddle," as Kelly had
described in his written testimony.
"No," said Lewis. He said he only knew what was happening
from the viewpoint of his committee. He said it was obvious
the agencies involved could use an outside evaluation, "and
the National Academy was the obvious source of this
Lewis said the formation of the committee didn't have any
signals of politically motivated interference. "The
committee itself, once formed, is immune from political
meddling because of the way the academy has learned to
handle its committees over the last 150 years," he said.
In earlier testimony that day, NOAA assistant
administrator William Hogarth, said influence of resource
managers "comes from lots of different levels. As far as
political influence from the administration, I've had zero
since I've been here. So, I haven't seen any."
He said he has had talks with members of the Hill, the
fishing industry, and with most of those who are regulated
by his agency, but has seen no pressure from the
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