The Washington Post reported last Wednesday that Vice President Dick Cheney pressured federal officials to divert more water to Klamath Basin farmers in 2002. This came on the heels of a 2001 court order telling federal officials to reduce water diversions to Klamath irrigators in order to protect coho salmon and other threatened fish species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. The newspaper also reported that former Cheney staff members said that the VP’s office was “a powerful force behind the White House’s decision to rewrite a. . .measure that put nearly a third of the national forests off limits to logging, mining and most development.”
The Vice President’s Klamath meddling resulted in a ten-year plan to divert water to irrigators at levels at least one federal scientist warned would further harm Klamath salmon. Although he was right, he was overruled by political appointees closer to Cheney. Recent reports are now asking if Cheney pressured U.S. Department of the Interior employees to divert water from the Klamath River Basin in order to benefit Republican political prospects among Oregon farmers.
Congress is considering hearings on this issue.
The 10-year water diversion plan went into effect in 2002 with then Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then Agriculture Secretary, Anne Veneman, joined by Senator Gordon Smith, presiding over a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the headgates of the main water diversion canal in the upper Klamath basin. The ribbon cutting marked the commencement of the new Cheney water plan that tipped the balance towards irrigators and eventually robbed salmon-dependent communities of their bread and butter. The Cheney plan resulted in a 2002 salmon kill of about 70,000 salmon, the worst human-induced fish kill ever recorded on the West Coast.
Commercial salmon fishermen and conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, filed suit challenging the Cheney plan and sought to restore minimal flows needed to keep the fish from going extinct. Eventually Earthjustice won this suit at both the federal district court and appellate court levels, but the Klamath irrigators refused to accept the ruling that would allow a restoration of salmon runs in the river.
“The Klamath irrigators fought in court for the Cheney plan for almost two more years, even as coastal fishermen and coastal communities, along with tribes living along the Klamath, suffered severe fishing restrictions, and economic hardship,” said Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice.
The irrigators’ anti-salmon crusade ended two weeks ago, when the appellate court rejected their last ditch attempt to resurrect the Cheney plan.
Earthjustice continues to defend the victory won in court requiring a more balanced and fair distribution of the water for both irrigators and fish, and Earthjustice remains at the center of the fight to stop political interference in scientific decisions about Klamath river salmon and other wild critters. Earthjustice has also represented the environmental community in litigation that has resulted in reinstatement of the roadless area protection rule that Cheney’s office sought to replace with a far weaker rule.