Klamath River Dispute Takes Political Turn

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, August 6, 2003 (ENS) - Conservation groups today demanded answers from the White House about the role the president's top political advisor has taken to dictate federal management of the Klamath River Basin.

The organizations are concerned White House chief political advisor Karl Rove may have pressured federal managers to favor agricultural interests over endangered species and tribal water rights - a decision they say led to the death of more than 33,000 salmon in the Klamath River in September 2002.

The government can not make decisions on managing the Klamath River Basin "based on the political ambitions of the White House," said Kristen Boyles of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which filed the Freedom of Information Act request today on behalf of seven conservation groups and one commercial fishing association.

The request aims to unearth "exactly what White House operatives did to achieve the political outcome they wanted at the expense of the Klamath River and coastal communities," Boyles said. Rove

Some say White House top political advisor Karl Rove has taken a questionable interest in management of the Klamath River Basin. (Photo courtesy White House)
The basis of the allegations against Rove stem from a July 30 "Wall Street Journal" article, which detailed his interest and involvement in favor of Klamath River Basin agricultural interests.

The "Wall Street Journal" reported that Rove met in January 2002 with Interior Department managers, where he discussed the importance of the regulatory actions in key states - including Oregon and the Klamath River Basin - to Republican candidates in the coming elections. The paper says Rove used a PowerPoint presentation also employed to solicit Republican donors.

Just prior to this meeting Rove had met with ranching and agricultural interests in Oregon, according to the Wall Street Journal, and also indicated to Republican leaders that the administration supported the diversion of water from the river basin to agricultural interests.

In March 2002, President George W. Bush created the cabinet level Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group.

The controversial 10 year plan for the Klamath Basin emerged and in April 2002 the Interior Department diverted water to the farmers - a move conservationists say set the stage for the massive fish kill in September 2002.

The Wall Street Journal article also says that Rove may have influenced a recent decision by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to reverse an announced policy to reduce the irrigation flow in the Basin.

Administration officials have downplayed Rove's influence, but critics are not convinced.

"If the Wall Street Journal is correct, it is clear the Bush administration is willing to sacrifice the well being of Northern California coastal communities and the Native American tribes of the Klamath Basin on the altar of political expediency," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The letter seeks Rove's PowerPoint presentation, a full accounting of all costs reimbursed to the government for Rove's political activities on the Klamath, as required by federal law, as well as a breakdown of all the taxpayer supported costs incurred by Rove while working on Klamath issues.

"Until the public is aware of the specific political influence involved in decisions affecting the Klamath River basin, the search for solutions to this ecosystem crisis will be in vain," the groups wrote in their request.

The ongoing crisis has been a century in the making - starting largely with the U.S. government's development of a massive irrigation project in the high desert. fishkill

More than 33,000 salmon died in the Klamath River last year and conservationists blame low water levels. (Photo courtesy American Rivers)
This project has played havoc with the natural flow of the 250 mile river, which begins in Oregon and winds it way to the Pacific Ocean through the Northern reaches of California.

There is little question the project helped agriculture develop in the Upper Basin, but 80 percent of the Klamath Basin wetlands are gone, entire lakes are drained and the salmon fishery has greatly diminished.

Now the thirst for water from agricultural interests in the Upper Basin has become virtually impossible for the federal government to balance with the needs of endangered fish, tribal interests and commercial fishers in the Lower Basin.

"No one questions that there are too many interests competing for too little water," said Boyles.

Upper Basin irrigation flow management by the federal Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) have cut the total river flows during drought summers by as must as 80 percent compared to levels prior to construction of the irrigation project.

The concern for conservation groups, tribal interests and salmon fishers is the appearance that the administration is tipping the scales in favor of the irrigation demands of the Upper Basin.

The allegations about Rove's influence follow testimony earlier this year by the former lead National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologist for the Klamath Irrigation Project, who said he was instructed to accept the administration's plan without performing the needed scientific analysis.

Because Klamath River coho salmon are protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, NMFS must approve any long-term irrigation plan devised by the BOR.

The 10 year plan the NMFS biologist testified against was rejected by a federal court last month. The court ruled the administration's plan, which keeps water levels at last year's levels, is illegal because it falls short of meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

The judge ordered the plan to remain in effect for 2003 while the federal agencies rewrite it, yet made made no determination what should happen in 2004 if a new plan has not been finalized.

All interests are keeping a close eye on the prospects for the salmon and conservationists are concerned.

The region did benefit from a wet spring, but the overall water flows are similar to last year when the massive fish kill occurred.

The long term solution to the water feud over the Klamath River Basin, Boyles told ENS, rests with "demand reduction." KLamath

The Klamath River winds 250 miles to the Pacific Ocean and its region attracts 80 percent of the Pacific Flyway's waterfowl. (Photo courtesy American Rivers)
Fostering this is far from easy, but one way could be to improve the efficiency of irrigation operations.

Another is buy back some of the agricultural land in the Klamath Basin - the government is already spending some $4 million this year to pay farming interests not to take irrigation water.

And drought and the water controversy are taking their toll on agricultural interests in the Upper Basin.

Farmers were hit hard in 2001, when water was not diverted for irrigation and instead sent downstream to support fish and tribal interests.

Earnings in the farm sector of Klamath County have fallen from eight percent of the county's total in 1970 to less than one percent.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, improving flows and water quality through restoration would double the value of the lower Klamath River's current $800 million sport fishing and tourism economy.

Restoration of the salmon fishery would also help bring back some of the $75 million in commercial fishing salaries lost each year as a result of Klamath fishery closures.