Water Wars

Water Wars

Street Roots article about Klamath Basin water issues.

By Matthew Deschaine
Street Roots, Street News Servic
August 20, 2007

WaterWatch’s John DeVoe works to keep the public interest in conserving Oregon’s public water (Photograph by Street Roots)


For more than a decade, the Klamath River Basin has been the central front in Oregon’s highly politicized water wars.

In Sept. 2002, the battle over the basin’s aquatic resources took a tragic turn when a controversial water plan resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of chinook and coho salmon– one of the largest fish kills in U.S. history.

With the recent disclosure that Vice President Dick Cheney helped to cultivate the scientific opinion that led to the 2002 Klamath fish kill, Oregon environmental politics is again in the national spotlight.

Portland-based WaterWatch has been fighting to restore and protect Oregon’s waterways for more than two decades. Working with other conservation groups, commercial fishermen and Native Americans, WaterWatch has helped overturn portions of the Bush Administration’s water management plan, restore minimal water levels to the Klamath Basin and defend coho salmon’s listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Street Roots spoke with John DeVoe, the executive director of WaterWatch, about the intersection of politics and science and the future of the Klamath River Basin.

Matthew Deschaine: How did the 2002 Klamath fish kill occur and what role did politics play in the disaster?

John DeVoe: Basically, what happened is you have listings of three species of fish under the Endangered Species Act. There are two species of sucker fish and there is coho salmon in the Klamath River. The suckers had been listed as endangered until recently; the coho have been listed as protected with different levels of protections. There is a large irrigation project at the basin called the Klamath Project, it is about 225,000 acres of irrigated agriculture, and outside of the Klamath project there is about 230,000 to 250,000 acres of irrigated agriculture that is not part of the federal project. The federal project has to present operating plans and it has to decide how it is going to operate in a way that is going to be protective of these fish species. In 2001, after a series of drought years, the federal government curtailed the amount of water that could be diverted into the Klamath irrigation project by the Bureau of Reclamation, and that caused a huge political uproar among the irrigators. I think it is important to note that within the project, irrigators still got about 68 percent of the water that they had contracts for with the Bureau of Reclamation. It is also important to note that everybody outside the project got all the water that nature provided that year, even though there was a drought. There was no curtailment by any agency of the state or federal government to those people, but the fact that there was a curtailment of water within the project caused this huge uproar. You had elections coming up and the administration at the federal level got very interested in making political hay out of the situation. There were specific elections where you had people saying we can use this to our advantage. Then I think the directive came down from the White House and from high level Dept of Interior officials to get the science on the side of agriculture. So the National Resource Council, the National Academy of Sciences were brought in and they were asked some questions that weren’t really appropriate to the situation. They were asked, “Can you say with a high level of certainty that the actions taken in 2001 vis-à-vis the water were scientifically justified to a very high level of certainty?” The NAS and the NCR came back and said, “We can’t say with a 100 degree certainty that those actions were justified.” So then in 2002, you had the administration flip the situation around with complete deliveries to the irrigators with water from the Klamath River. The result was about 80,000 salmon — adult chinook salmon and some coho — died as they were staging for their migration up the river. There are differences of opinion on what the exact cause of the die-off was for those adult salmon. We say it was a lack of water, low flows due to the decisions in irrigation up-river.

M.D.: Has this type of direct political intervention happened before, and if the White House can intervene at will, what implications does it have for state and local environmental efforts?

J.D.: Well, I think it is coming to light now that this sort of intervention with science has happened across the administration, and across other agencies. You have the surgeon general standing up and saying, “I can’t make any decisions without interference from above.” You have people interfering with things like stem cell research. You have people interfering with environmental decisions that are supposed to be based on science. It runs across various fields and agencies with this administration, and I think it is unprecedented to see this level of interference. I think the administration has been doing this for sometime. You can look at the Columbia hydro-power system and all the lawsuits surrounding that and the government’s foot-dragging on actually implementing measures to recover Columbia River salmon and you can say that is another example where the administration dragged its feet. But the Klamath River is more of a direct intervention. Those are the two big ones in terms of Oregon.

M.D.: Is it possible to prevent this sort of political intervention from happening again?

J.D.: I think the more sunshine we cast on these sorts of decision-making processes the more assurance we’ll have that they are using the best available science to make the decisions. And the public needs to know, needs to be concerned about this. It needs to be brought to light, as the Washington Post did, for example, that there is interference and that the specialists that are supposed to be making the decisions are making decisions that are then changed from above. The more the public knows about that sort of behavior the more likely the public is to reject that sort of behavior. But as to whether someone will be criminally prosecuted for this, well, that’s probably a long shot.

M.D.: Is the privatization of water a developing trend? If so, who benefits from it, who suffers from it?

J.D.: Water in Oregon and in a lot of the West is a public resource, and there are laws that say that in no uncertain terms. All water from all sources of supply belongs to the public. It is a public resource, but obviously it is a very valuable resource, and certain sectors of the economy and of society have recognized that. There is a push to privatize or lock up water for the benefit of certain interests. That has been going on for 150 years in the West, and that is the history of water in the West. There is an old saying that in the West water flows uphill towards money, and that is often the case even though it should be a public resource. There are all sorts of environmental and social justice issues that go along with the privatization or the allocation of water to specific interests. As it currently stands in Oregon, of the amount of water diverted from our rivers and aquifers, agriculture diverts about 75 percent, with industry and municipalities picking up the remainder. So agriculture is the big user statewide.

M.D.: How do you balance agricultural production with environmental production? Can it be done?

J.D.: It can be done, but it will require some reallocation of the existing pie on water. Rivers certainly provide public benefits as well, and what you’ve had historically is the recognition that certain interests really benefit from water — agriculture industry and municipalities primarily — to the detriment of other interests like tribal fisheries, commercial fisheries, sport fisheries and other economic interests that depend on healthy rivers. And obviously in Oregon, our state is defined by rivers. We have a lot of world-class rivers, and we certainly have places across the state relying heavily on intact rivers. Take the Klamath, you have agriculture benefiting for the use of water down there to the detriment of tribal fisheries. What you have is in the Pacific Ocean the managers of fisheries manage what is called a weak stock basis, so if the Klamath stock is in trouble, then salmon fishing in the entire range of that stock is going to be restricted. You’ve seen closures of the Pacific salmon season in southern Oregon and Northern California as a result of the fish kill in the Klamath River, and that hammers communities up and down the coast who need to make payments on their boats, people who sell gas — it’s a ripple effect through the coastal economy. There are going to be intense pressures on water and there is going to be intense pressure by those with the means to ensure that it is allocated to their interests. There are all sorts of justice issues and environmental issues along the way.

M.D.: What are the ideal conditions WaterWatch is seeking for the Klamath River Basin?

J.D.: Too much water has been promised to too many people, and until we bring the demand for water back into balance with what nature can provide, every year one of those legitimate interests is going to suffer, whether it’s agriculture, tribes, the environment, or commercial fisherman on the coast. You really can’t solve the crisis down there unless they find a way to allocate water in a more balanced fashion and more fairly to all the legitimate interests involved. That is our basic goal in the basin. We work to get at that these goals a number of different ways, but from our perspective, that’s what it takes to solve the issues in the basin. You need to bring the demand for water back into the bounds of what nature can provide.

M.D.: Are you optimistic that these goals can be achieved?

J.D.: There are some hopeful signs. The state has taken a more thoughtful approach to managing water in the Klamath basin. I think there is an increasing recognition that ground water and surface water needs to be managed as one resource in the basin and that is a very encouraging development. There has been increasing recognition of the tribal interests in a healthy river and a healthy fishery. With all of that goes an increasing recognition of the need for a healthy river. So there are some hopeful developments. We call the Klamath the Everglades of the West and it really presents the most promising opportunity on the West Coast to restore a major river system. And I think we can do it in ways that don’t displace people who want to be there and want to farm, and do it in ways that recognize the rights of Native Americans, commercial fishermen, the needs of the river, the wetlands and the basin. It historically supported what may have been the largest concentration of water fowl on the planet. So this is a place of international, planetary significance. It has species found nowhere else. It deserves a greater level of protection and restoration, and we are going to have to make some changes to get there. I am optimistic we can do it in a way that doesn’t change people’s way of life and gets us to the goal line.

“This is Dick Cheney. I understand you are the person handling this Klamath situation. Please call me at — hmm, I guess I don’t know my own number. I’m over at the White House.” That was the message to Sue Ellen Wooldridge, an Interior Department official, that started it all. The vice president’s comments were first reported by the Washington Post in late June. Citing Cheney’s own aides and a former Oregon congressman lobbying for Klamath Basin farmers, the Washington Post outlines how the vice president challenged the integrity of the science protecting the endangered fish in the basin, leading to the federal government to reverse itself and divert flow from the endangered salmon to the farmers. The result was the death of 70,000 to 80,000 salmon.

In a series about the vice president’s involvement, the Washington Post draws on sources who say that Cheney pressured the Interior Department in creating a new water policy that would benefit the farmers. On the block was not only cropland and pastures, but the re-election of Republican Sen. Gordon Smith in a state Republicans narrowly lost in the 2000 presidential election.

In June, as a result of the Washington Post reports, Democrat Rep. Mike Thompson and 35 other House Democrats from California and Oregon formally requested a hearing into the vice president’s involvement. “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,” Thompson said.

On July 31, House Democrats held a hearing into the allegations that Bush administration officials improperly interfered with several decisions affecting endangered species. In the end, they did not find evidence directly linking Vice President Dick Cheney to the decision that contributed to the largest fish kill in U.S. history. Cheney declined to attend the hearing.

Ringed by snow-capped mountains, with Crater Lake at its northern edge, the Klamath River Basin is in Oregon’s high desert and one of the driest places in the state. Yet the annual snowmelt feeds a vast network of rivers, lakes and wetlands. The region is home to wintering bald eagles, snow geese and tundra swans, among many other bird species and wildlife.

The Klamath Project was launched in 1905 as a means to lure settlers to the region. The Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the project, drained lakes and wetlands and redirected the water flow through a plumbing system for crop irrigation. As a result, an estimated 80 percent of the natural wetlands in the basin were destroyed, and water flows were greatly diminished.

On Aug. 8, Sen. Gordon Smith told the Eugene Register Guard that he doesn’t know of a connection between “water for sucker fish that went to farmers and salmon 18 months later that died of a gill disease.” The fish kill came within six months of the water diversion. A contributing factor to disease in fish is stress, heat and congestion because of low water levels.

More information available at www.waterwatch.org
Reprinted from Street Roots


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