Drifting on the Klamath

Drifting on the Klamath

Eugene Register-Guard editorial responding to Senator Gordon Smith’s opinion of the state of Klamath Basin.

Eugene Register-Guard
August 14, 2007


The problem with Sen. Gordon Smith’s defense of the Bush administration’s 2002 decision to divert Klamath Lake water for irrigation isn’t that the Oregon Republican is wobbly on the facts. It’s that he’s willing to bend and selectively omit the facts to justify ideologically driven political positions.

In an interview last week with The Register-Guard editorial board, Smith insisted there is no evidence that a massive fish kill on the Klamath River that same year was caused by the administration’s decision to release water to farmers. Smith also defended the role that Vice President Dick Cheney played in intervening with federal officials to resume flows to farmers in the Klamath Basin .

The issue of the Klamath diversion arose because the House Natural Resources Committee is investigating Cheney’s role in Klamath water management decisions that many believe led to the deaths five years ago of 75,000 fish in the Klamath Basin . Three dozen House Democrats from Oregon and California requested the hearings after The Washington Post reported details of Cheney’s extensive intervention, which was intended, in part, to win votes for Smith’s re-election. Smith had been pushing the administration to help get water for farmers whose crops were threatened by the shut-off amid drought conditions.

Smith insisted the water diversion was intended to help threatened sucker fish and that “the focus at the time was not on salmon,” and said the die-off occurred 18 months later near the mouth of the Klamath River . He said the fish “died of some gill disease, which is not uncommon and happens periodically,” and that it was unrelated to the decision to the irrigation diversions and the lower water levels they produced.

Smith’s version of Klamath Basin history conveniently omitted some key facts. They include a California Department of Fish and Game report that said a number of factors – including warm temperatures, low flows and crowding – caused conditions conducive to gill disease and other bacterial infections. “River flow and the volume of water in the fish kill area were atypically low,” the report said, noting that river flow was the sole factor controlled by humans.

In a Saturday story by The Register-Guard’s David Steves, commercial fishing advocate Glenn Spain aptly observed that Smith’s simplistic attribution of the dead fish to gill disease “is sort of like saying lung cancer kills smokers, not smoking.”

Smith’s assertion that the fish kill happened 18 months after the diversion is also off base. The die-off occurred between Sept. 19 and Oct. 1 – five months after the March 29 reopening of the headgates.

Smith’s characterization of the diversion decision as a choice between sucker fish and irrigation for farmers also was off the mark. A 2001 biological opinion by federal scientists prohibited the release of Klamath water for irrigation for the protection of sucker fish and coho, both of which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In a subsequent interview with The Oregonian, Smith also said he doubts there was a connection between the salmon die-off and last year’s near-shutdown of commercial fishing off the Oregon Coast . While there were certainly other factors involved, fishery officials have cited the 2002 fish kill as one of the problems that contributed to the depletion of Klamath River runs.

Smith has shown a willingness to overlook inconvenient facts before. Last year, he and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River , promoted a bill that would have accelerated salvage logging and reforestation after fires, dismissing a study by Oregon State University researchers that raised serious questions about the practice.

With Smith facing what could be a tough re-election race next year, he should pay more attention to the facts when discussing environmental issues, including Klamath Basin water policy.