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Water Wars Make Waves on Capitol Hill

31 July 2007 (All day)
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USGS

Lake Unplacid.
Vice President Cheney allegedly stepped in to help farmers get more water in a fight over Klamath Lake in Oregon.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--If Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush Administration officials interfered in a high-stakes battle over endangered species in 2002, Democrats can't find any tracks. Although a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist testified about his recommendations being overturned, a hearing today by the House Natural Resources Committee did not uncover any evidence to support allegations of meddling made in a recent article in The Washington Post.

The battle concerns the Klamath River Basin, which spans southern Oregon and northern California (Science, 4 April 2003, p. 36). In 2001, a severe drought forced the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs dams and canals along the river, to deliver less water than normal from the river to farms and pastures. The decision was based on a 2001 "biological opinion" from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which had determined that three species of endangered fish, including the coho salmon, needed the water to survive. Dependent on this irrigation, some 70,000 hectares of farmland dried up. Oregon farmers raised a stink.

That's when Cheney allegedly got involved. A 27 June article in the Washington Post reported that, at Cheney's request, the Department of Interior (DOI) asked the National Research Council (NRC) to review the biological opinions underpinning the decision to keep the water in the river. Its preliminary report concluded that removing water was unlikely to harm the fishes. A subsequent opinion in 2002 by NMFS concurred with NRC. "Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season," the Post concluded.

At today's hearing, former NMFS biologist Michael Kelly--author of the 2002 opinion--told panel chair Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) that he believed more water needed to be left in the river in 2002 than what NRC had recommended. But Kelly says his draft opinion was reviewed by the Department of Justice and found to be "indefensible."

Subsequently, Kelly said, James Lecky, assistant administrator of the Southwest region for NMFS, arrived at the field office and produced a "defensible" opinion that was consistent with the NRC report. "It was obvious to me that someone up the chain of command was applying a tremendous amount of pressure on Mr. Lecky," Kelly said. Not so, says NMFS Assistant Administrator William Hogarth. "There was no pressure," he told ScienceNOW after testifying. "The only pressure was that we were behind schedule."

The House committee also reviewed a second allegation of political influence in the Klamath. In 2003, the Wall Street Journal reported that Karl Rove, then White House chief of staff, had visited 50 DOI managers and noted that the Bush Administration favors farmers over fish. In subsequent investigations, however, the DOI Inspector General's office found "no evidence of political influence affecting the decisions pertaining to the water in the Klamath Project."

Although the DOI investigations did not look at any possible involvement by the vice president, Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) said he doubted that the earlier investigations would have ignored tampering by Cheney. Mary Kendall, deputy inspector general of DOI, said she couldn't be sure without taking another look. "There is room to interpret that perhaps information was not provided," she told the committee. But don't expect an answer soon: Kendall says her office has no plans to investigate.

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