(This series was produced by James May as part of his fellowship project for the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Water flow problems on the Klamath were exacerbated by drought in the first few years of the present decade that affected much of the Pacific Northwest and hit the arid areas east of the region's tall mountain ranges the hardest.
Water was curtailed to farmers because of provisions in the Endangered Species Act and treaty requirements that guaranteed the lower basin tribes enough water flow for the fish. Farmers led large demonstrations as their community suffered. As an indicator as to how serious the problem had become, at one point in 2001 sales of farming equipment in the region had dipped 95 percent.
Some in the region took their frustrations out on local Indian tribes, including the Klamath and other upper basin tribes as ugly racial incidents marred the area. One local eatery also advertised a "Sucker Fish Sandwich," another endangered species of fish affected by low flows and agricultural diversions, and gave the proceeds to fighting the Endangered Species Act.
The federal government sent mixed messages and scrambled to make everyone happy. Shortly after Bill Clinton took office in 1993, the Department of Interior acknowledged the lower basin's tribal treaty claims and promised that there would be enough water for fish.
This worked for a while, as long as the rainfall remained plentiful. However, when the drought struck a major political battle was born.
Given the region's remoteness, the area is not among the most obvious places for a national showdown. However, because of its strategic location in what is considered a battle-ground state, Oregon, in anticipation of the 2004 presidential election, it has been transformed into a political hotspot.
In 2002, Republican Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, was facing re-election. Smith's re-election was considered important to the Bush Administration's plans for re-taking the United States Senate which had slipped into Democratic hands at the defection of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords who switched from the Republicans to being an Independent that voted with Democrats.
Bush had also narrowly lost Oregon to Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by less than 1 percent of the statewide vote. A Wall Street Journal article last July said that Bush political operative Karl Rove had briefed more than 40 Department of Interior employees in January 2002 about the Klamath issue and highlighted it as a potentially major political issue meant to galvanize the generally conservative farmers in the battleground state.
A few months later, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton traveled to Oregon where she announced that Interior would increase the water supply for the area's farmers, which set off an outcry from the lower basin tribes as well as coastal area fishermen and environmentalists.
The Department of Interior is currently investigating Rove for his alleged role in influencing policy decisions by turning them into political decisions.
Sen. Smith's office denies any unfair interference from the White House.
"Both Sen. Smith and President Bush have been very consistent in their support for farmers with the policy of the land," says Chris Matthews, director of Communications for Sen. Smith.
The Bush Administration also came up with a 10-year water plan that sought to make the disparate parties happy. However, farmers claim that they were not given enough water and the tribes are claiming that fish are not receiving enough water.
On the other side of the border and political spectrum, in California, Gov. Gray Davis accused the Bush Administration of playing politics with the river. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., was one of 10 lawmakers to sign a letter condemning Bush Administration policies on the Klamath river.
Rep, Thompson is also party to a pending lawsuit filed in federal district court against the Bush Administration's 10-year water plan.
"After the fish kill last year we made several requests for meetings with Secretary Norton and were ignored," said Leslie Danz, Thompson's press secretary.
Echoing Danz's complaint is Secretary of California Resources Mary Nichols, who also says that Norton ignored a letter she had written requesting a meeting regarding the administration's water plan.
"Threatened and endangered species need a long-term plan and not the quick-fix solutions that we're seeing from the federal government," said Nichols.
One of these quick-fix solutions has been an increase in water allocations this year to head off a disaster of the type that occurred last year.
In the race to avert the same kind of disaster that left tens of thousands of fall run Chinook salmon dead on the Klamath River last year, the federal government has increased water flows on the river. However, tribes on the lower Klamath are saying that the increased flows are barely adequate.
Mike Orcutt, director of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries Department, reported that water flows on the Trinity River, an important Klamath River tributary, has been increased by the federal Bureau of Reclamation to 450,000 acre feet with an additional 50,000 acre feet available if there are any sings of trouble on the fish run.
Orcutt said that this is "good enough" for right now and said that the tribe is closely monitoring the temperature of the water and the condition of the fish to quickly request additional water if needed.
Despite promising signs now, Orcutt said it is Mother Nature and not any federal planning that has helped the river this year. By early April it was looking to be another disastrous year. After a dry second half of the winter things were looking grim, but a series of late season storms that lasted well into May increased the water fortunes for the Klamath River system.
"Basically, Mother Nature bailed us out," Orcutt said.
Similarly, water supplies have also increased on the Klamath River proper because of the late precipitation. Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation reported that water flow on the Klamath is 50 percent higher this year than last. He claims that the Bureau has petitioned a federal judge to release an additional 50,000 acre feet from dammed up lakes on the river and have thus far released 30,000 acre feet into the river.
Though the Bureau of Reclamation has been a target of frustration for tribes and farmers alike, McCraken claimed that their job is to regulate the flow to keep both farmers and tribes happy.
"We're very clear in what we do," said McCraken. "We have to meet the needs of the Endangered Species Act, the farmers and the Indians."
In response to making sure that farmers' needs are met is Dan Kappen, the executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.
Kappen blames "extreme environmental groups" for polarizing the debate and counters lower basin tribes' claims that low water flow alone is the culprit for reduced fish runs and last year's die off.
"The dead fish were found 200 miles downstream from where we are (in the upper basin) and I was quite frankly amazed that government officials and environmentalists blamed it on us," said Kappen.
Other factors, said Kappen, such as lingering effects of mining and predators such as the non-native brown trout as well as sea lions, are not being factored into the process.
Kappen said that the farmers in the area have taken precautionary measures such as setting up fish screens to prevent sucker fish and other endangered species from being caught in the irrigation canals.
In terms of the political influence of the Bush Administration, Kappen denies that the farmers have gained any special access and said that the administration is trying to find "balance" between the competing river interests.
(Continued in Part Three)