Science clears Cheney in Klamath salmon die-off
by Jerry Reynolds, Indian Country Today, August 3, 2007
|WASHINGTON - A
long day for the Natural Resources Committee in the House
of Representatives July 31 began with the majority
Democrats pouring discredit on the Republican presidential
administration. But almost seven hours later they had done
the same for the oversight role of Congress, boldly touted
in the early going by a succession of committee members.
For the lions of oversight had vanished by the time a
scientist's testimony solved the riddle of the Klamath
River salmon die-off of 2002. So had the television news
cameras, most reporters and much of an audience that once
numbered 100 strong. A comparative few heard William M.
Lewis Jr., currently a professor of biology and a
researcher in environmental sciences at the University of
Colorado at Boulder, former chairman of the National
Academy of Sciences National Research Council Committee on
Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River
Basin, give an account of committee findings that ruled
out any real likelihood of a direct connection between a
politicized water management decision and the Klamath
Lewis gave an admittedly conservative estimate of salmon
mortality at the mouth of the Klamath River in Oregon in
September 2002: 32,897, compared with other estimates that
have ranged from 70,000 to almost 80,000. Of those, 1
percent, or 384, were coho salmon, protected under the
Endangered Species Act; the rest were fall-run chinook
salmon. The salmon did not die because of low water flows
in the drought-stricken Klamath River. After comparing low
river flows in previous dry years that did not produce a
salmon die-off, ''The committee ... concluded that
mortality was the result of an unusual combination of
conditions, probably including unusually low flow plus the
absence of a cool pulse of flow that even a brief
precipitation event might have provided.''
The salmon had come from the sea to mass in the mouth of
the Klamath for their annual migration upriver to spawn.
They awaited favorable conditions, signaled by cool water
flows that would have sent them hurtling upriver. The
signal didn't come. As they continued to wait and gather,
bacterial and protozoan disease agents spread among them,
common causes of mortality among overcrowded, stressed-out
fish. The immediate mortal condition among the Klamath
salmon was gill rot.
Lewis didn't mention Vice President Richard Cheney,
subject of a Washington Post newspaper article the
committee took as its occasion for the July 31 hearing.
The Post's numerous sources charged Cheney with
politically motivated meddling in the scientific findings
that undergird decision-making at the Bureau of
Reclamation's Klamath Project, the federal water
management regime for irrigation farming in the Klamath
River Basin. The article's most explosive allegation was
that Cheney's behind-the-scenes intervention to release
Klamath Project water to irrigation farmers in the basin
overturned settled scientific recommendations against such
diversions, and so contributed to Klamath salmon mortality
in September 2002, one of the largest adult salmon
die-offs in recorded U.S. history.
Amid the morning's conflicting views on the complex topic
of salmon mortality, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., had
identified Lewis as the committee's answer man on Klamath
salmon science. But in the late afternoon, following a
second break in the hearing for a vote on the House floor,
Democratic Reps. Miller, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Jay
Inslee of Washington, and committee Chairman Nick Rahall
of West Virginia did not reappear to hear Lewis's
Unchallenged by any of the morning's more outspoken
committee members, Lewis laid to rest the idea that
Klamath Project water management withheld the cool pulse
of flow that would have signaled migration to the salmon.
''The NRC committee concluded that this is very unlikely.
The Klamath Project is located over 150 miles upstream
from the mouth, and water flowing through the Klamath
Project accounts for only 10 percent of the flow at the
mouth; large tributaries entering the river below the
Klamath Project contribute most of the flow at the mouth.
Furthermore, the Klamath Project releases water that is
warm because it comes from storage lakes rather than
reaching the stream through groundwater or surface runoff.
The committee concluded that a relatively small amount of
warm water propagated over a distance of 150 miles would
not have made a critical difference to the salmon that
were staging for migration at the mouth of the river.''
In an interview after the hearing, Lewis cautioned against
the assumption that a greater volume of water flow in a
river is good for salmon. Chinook sal-mon are especially
temperature-dependent, he explained. They respond to cool
water flows that reach the Klamath from multiple sources,
including tributaries, surface runoff and groundwater;
pouring stored warm water, such as the Klamath Project's
10 percent of flow at the river mouth that went to
irrigation farmers instead, on top of the cool flows might
do more harm than good to chinooks by artificially raising
the temperature of cool flows.
Of course, the findings of the Lewis committee, convened
following the die-off, amount to a post mortem account.
The allegation of Cheney's policy-making manipulations of
science prior to the die-off, as part of a ''pattern and
practice'' of ''war with science'' by the administration
of President George W. Bush, remained a hot topic at the
Salmon are essential and symbolic throughout the
Northwest, and more nearly sacred among Northwest tribes.
The Klamath salmon die-off of 2002 galvanized a settlement
process among the region's many stakeholders in Klamath
River water management. The 26-organization Klamath
Settlement Group includes the Hoopa Valley, Karuk, Klamath
and Yurok tribes. The group issued an announcement July
24, stating that while many details of a settlement await
finalization, a set of guiding principles is in place, as
well as a commitment on all sides to develop a Klamath
Settlement Agreement by November.
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