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Science clears Cheney in Klamath salmon die-off

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 salmon die-off.

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.

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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 testimony.

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 hearing.

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.