Water policy change led to deaths of 68,000 salmon

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Five years after a devastating fish kill on Northern California's Klamath River, and 2,500 miles away in Washington, the political repercussions are intensifying.

North Coast fishermen and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, are applauding a House committee chairman's decision to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney's involvement in the deaths of 68,000 migrating chinook salmon in fall 2002.

"We know where the smoking gun lays," said Chris Lawson, a fisherman and president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman's Marketing Association.

While the salmon kill, the largest ever in the West, long has been attributed to Bush administration decisions, a Washington Post story last month detailed Cheney's successful effort to rewrite federal water policy for alleged political gain.

The resulting diversion of water to Klamath basin farmers and ranchers who were battling a drought lowered the river's flow and set the stage for the fish kill.

"Characteristically, Cheney left no tracks," the Post reported.

The same day the story was published, Thompson and 35 other Democrats from California and Oregon called for a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee to zero in on Cheney's actions. A day later, Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., agreed.

"They say a fish rots from the head down," Thompson said, applying an old aphorism to the episode that left thousands of rotting salmon carcasses in the lower Klamath. In this case, he said, the head is Cheney's.

Thompson's political role in the controversy goes back to a hot day in October 2002. That's when he piled 500 pounds of odorous, dead Klamath salmon in front of the Interior Department, accusing the agency of "gross mismanagement" in the wildlife disaster.

No date has been set for the hearing, nor have any witnesses been determined, said Allyson Groff, a Natural Resources Committee staffer.

A Cheney aide dismissed the matter, saying in an e-mail that it was "disappointing the Democrats would rather investigate than legislate."

The Post stories were "a repackaging of old accusations," said Megan McGinn, a deputy press secretary.

Asked if Cheney, who has a penchant for secrecy, would appear before the committee, she said: "I'll decline to comment on hypotheticals."

Lawson, a salmon fisherman, said he hopes the hearing will underscore the White House's involvement in the fish kill, which prompted a federal declaration that the 2006 salmon season was a failure.

He said he believes the Bush administration ignored the water policy to protect Klamath fish and instead just said, "Let's open the gates and give it to the farmers."

Thompson said the reduced river flow "wasn't about salmon or water, it was about electoral votes in Oregon."

The Post reported that Cheney, a few months after taking office in 2001, recognized the importance of mollifying Republican farmers in Oregon, a state he and George Bush had lost by less than half of 1 percent in the 2000 presidential election.

Federal biologists had determined that Klamath fish needed more water, and Cheney secured a National Academy of Sciences report overruling that finding. Then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton flew out to Oregon to open the gate, sending water to the farmers.

Last year, a federal judge prohibited the government from diverting Klamath water for agricultural use whenever water levels dropped beneath a certain point.

At the same time, fishermen were hit with the most restrictive salmon season on record for Oregon and California in 2006, and the commercial catch was 12 percent of a typical year.

Last fall, the return of 2-year-old salmon jacks to the Klamath was the second-largest run on record, a promising indicator for the 2007 migration. Biologists expect more than 500,000 adult chinooks will swim up the Klamath this fall, about five times the number from last year.

But until the season's salmon harvest is totaled, it's too soon to assess the health of the fish's ocean population, said Marc Heisdorf, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.


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