Smith and the Klamath Fish Kill: Fact and Fiction
What Senator Gordon Smith has said about the fish kill and how it stacks up with reality.
On July 31, 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney’s alleged role in the Klamath River’s massive salmon kills of 2002. These devastating and unprecedented kills resulted after the Bush administration overturned salmon restoration efforts in the Klamath River to favor powerful agribusiness interests. Shortly after the House hearing, the Eugene Register Guard’s editorial board asked Oregon’s Senator Gordon Smith about his role in the federal government’s decision to overturn salmon recovery efforts, his feelings on the fish kill, and his thoughts regarding Cheney’s actions.
Smith’s response that he had “no regrets” regarding the fish kill sparked widespread outrage, particularly in Oregon, where fishing communities are still suffering severe economic losses due to commercial salmon season closures in 2005 and 2006 aimed at protecting what is left of greatly weakened Klamath chinook salmon stocks. In the weeks following the statement, Smith responded with a series of convoluted and conflicting answers regarding the fish kill and its causes. In an effort to separate myth from fact in the furor over Senator Smith’s statements, Oregon Wild has created the following fact sheet.
The Slippery Sayings of Senator Smith
What Smith says: “I don't know that there's a connection between water for sucker fish that went to farmers and salmon 18 months later that died of a gill disease.” (Eugene Register Guard, August 8, 2007)
Why he’s being slippery: Smith’s 18-month number has no bearing on actual events. Full water diversions to the federal Klamath Irrigation Project’s “A” Canal at the headwaters of the Klamath River began on March 29, 2002 – during a gala ceremony attended by Smith and high-ranking Bush administration officials. The largest adult salmon kill in Western U.S. history began in the lower Klamath River in mid-September, less than six months from the day Smith publicly celebrated the federal decision to send scarce water to irrigators instead of protecting threatened fish. Smith later admitted he got his dates wrong.
Senator Smith’s statement that the salmon died of a gill disease avoids addressing the root cause of the catastrophe. Biologists studying the 2002 kill found evidence of diseases typical among salmon, but not typically lethal in healthy salmon populations. In the Klamath, these diseases turned lethal when the river became shallower and warmer – forcing salmon to crowd into pockets of cooler water to survive. The exhaustive U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, Klamath River Fish Die-Off September 2002: Causative Factors of Mortality, pointed to river levels as the primary cause for the fish kill. “Low river discharges apparently did not provide suitable attraction flows for migrating adult salmon, resulting in large numbers of salmon congregating in the warm waters of the lower river. The high density of fish, low discharges, warm water temperatures, and possible extended residence time of salmon created optimal conditions for parasite proliferation…” (USFWS, Causative Factors of Mortality, p ii)
In addition, the California Department of Fish and Game’s analysis of the fish kill determined that “River flow and the volume of water in the fish-kill area were atypically low,” and that flow is the only controllable factor and tool in the Klamath Basin to manage risks against future adult fish kills. (CDFG, September 2002 Klamath River Fish Kill: Final Analysis of Contributing Factors and Impacts, p 158)
says: “I’ve never said there wasn’t a
connection. I’m just saying you can’t
blame it entirely on the diversion as being the exclusive cause of the salmon
die-off.” (Bend Bulletin, August 20,
Why he’s being slippery: In his meeting with the Register Guard’s editorial board Smith said: “I don’t know that there’s a connection…” Reporters at The Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting thought the Senator was crystal clear in denying a connection. "Sen. Gordon Smith argues there is no evidence a massive fish kill on the Klamath River in 2002 was caused by water diversions to farmers.” (The Oregonian, August 11, 2007) “…[Smith] says there is no link between the federal water diversion and the massive fish kill.” (OPB, August 15, 2007).
What Smith says: “There's a lot of revisionism going on. If you look back at the editorial pages and the overwhelming feeling of Oregonians, that when water was cut off to farmers for the first time in 95 years, that was a wrong that needed to be righted.” (OPB, August 15, 2007)
Why he’s being slippery: Again, Smith’s statement has little bearing on reality. In 2001, when irrigation water was curtailed to protect endangered fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River, The Oregonian published an editorial titled “Klamath Dust Bowl,” stating that, “the government long ago promised settlers and farmers more water than it could deliver without destroying some of the most significant marsh lands, wildlife refuges and wild salmon runs in the nation.” Far from calling for water to flow only to irrigators, the paper recommended “…restored wetlands, a lake clean and sufficient enough for fish, a river with enough cool flow for coho salmon, and last but not least, a Klamath Basin with a sustainable level of irrigated family farms.” (The Oregonian, May 13, 2001). Most observers agree that current water demand in the Klamath Basin is not sustainable. This majority once included Senator Smith, who helped Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduce Klamath legislation in 2001 aimed at permanently reducing irrigation water demand.
After Klamath agribusiness interests and Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) worked to defeat that legislation, The Oregonian responded. “This time, Klamath farmers themselves wrenched shut the spigot that would have brought relief to their thirsty, polluted basin in Southern Oregon.” They added, “the salmon and suckers will keep teetering on the edge of extinction,” if the status quo remains unchanged. (The Oregonian April 28, 2002)
What Smith says: “This is not about a fish versus a farmer.” and “My actions today are not to subvert the Endangered Species Act.” (Speech on the Senate Floor, July 11, 2001)
Why he’s being slippery: Just a few minutes before Senator Smith made the above statement, he opened his remarks with this: “Americans are becoming familiar with a part of my State and a part of California known as the Klamath Basin because of the coverage of a tragic situation that has developed there in a contest between suckerfish and farmers.”
What Smith says: “Whenever the government says to any group of Americans, we are cutting you off 100 percent, not one drop (of water), that gets my blood boiling…” (The Oregonian, August 11, 2007)
“I am proud to fight for the farmers or any group of Americans whom the federal government says has no standing, no water. I just find that offensive.” (Eugene Register Guard, August 8, 2007)
Why he’s being slippery: Contrary to Smith’s statements, Klamath irrigators were not cut off “100 percent.” The Klamath Irrigation Project’s total normal water intake is approximately 450,000 acre-feet (af) of water per year. Before the decision to reduce deliveries in 2001, the Klamath Basin Pilot Irrigation Demand Reduction Program had paid 162 irrigators $2.7 million to idle roughly 17,000 acres of farmland within the Project. This reduced demand by roughly 35,000 af, or 7% of total demand. Given this reduction, 415,000 af would have been normal in 2001. The Project actually received 280,000 af of water from reservoirs and wells in 2001, or 67% of normal. Here are the numbers:
- 25%: On April 6th, Vice President Dick Cheney ordered 70,000 af released from Clear Lake Reservoir. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) spilled 107,000 af from Clear Lake at this time to compensate for losses to evaporation and rampant unregulated diversions along the Lost River delivery system (Jim Bryant, USBR). The USBR had no authority to release this additional 37,000 af.
- 18%: On July 24, Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton directed a 75,000 af release from Upper Klamath Lake.
- 24%: Emergency wells authorized and funded after the decision produced up to 100,000 acre-feet of water for the Project. (“Clearing up water issues on Klamath Basin,” The Oregonian, August 29, 2001)
What Smith says: “Smith also cast doubt on the connection between the fish kill in 2002 and the severe curtailment of commercial salmon fishing in 2006.” (The Oregonian, August 11, 2007)
Why he’s being slippery: Again, from The Oregonian: “In making their decision, fishery officials cited continuing problems with the Klamath River runs, including the fish kill in 2002.”