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Karl Rove and the Water War at the A Canal
By Doris Ostrander Dawdy
April 5, 2004

The impetus for the war at the A Canal began with a news item in the February 2, 2001, Klamath Falls Herald and News: "Extremely dry conditions may force federal agencies to conserve all available water in the Klamath River Basin for the protection of fish, leaving farmers with little or no water for raising crops this year."

On March 29, Oregon's Senator Gordon Smith, then running for reelection, wrote President Bush, urging him to take on the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project where the A Canal is located. "'I respectfully request that your domestic policy team become involved in this issue today,'" wrote Smith, quoted in the March 30 Herald and News. Karl Rove, from his office in the West Wing of the White House, heads the President's domestic policy and speechwriting teams.

The media usually refer to Rove as the President's chief political advisor. He sits in on cabinet and other high level meetings; frequently tells Bush whom to appoint to cabinet and other high level positions; and guides Bush in decision-making to the extent that the authors of Bush's Brain call him "the co-president." In January 2002, Rove set out to get Smith reelected in November, and to convince more Oregonians to vote Republican in 2004. Rove's phenomenal memory makes him an intellectual giant to those who meet him. He may even remember the exact number of votes that enabled the Democratic Party to carry Oregon by a small majority in 2000.

Active politically since his high school days and already a master of dirty tricks when he quit college, Rove began his career as a consultant to political office seekers. Apparently he never hesitated to use character assassination, should that be necessary for his client to win. Ask Senator John McCain, a presidential hopeful in 2000 when he became a victim because his popularity exceeded that of George W. Bush. Rove is largely responsible for Bush's two terms as Governor of Texas, and subsequent election as President. His service to the Bush family spans the years since 1973; his service to the President spans the years since he graduated from Yale.

The A Canal, which serves most of the Klamath Irrigation Project, begins at the outlet of Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon. The canal was 15 miles long when it was purchased by the federal government in 1905. In operation since the late 1880s, it was the first of three privately-owned irrigation canals in this region of lakes and wetlands in southern Oregon and northern California. Integrating those canals into the Klamath Project was the first order of business for the government's engineers, and the private contractors the chief engineer engaged. A dam, 22 feet high, was built to raise Upper Klamath Lake to a capacity of 735,000 acre-feet. Presently operated by PacifiCorp, but subject to Klamath Project water rights, it is the source of the A Canal's irrigation water. Today the canal delivers water to 170,000 to 180,000 acres of the Project's 200,000 acres of farms and ranches.

The shortage of water, feared in February 2001, was followed by a restraining order in April requiring more water for salmon survival in the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam. On April 4, federal district court Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong filed her ruling in Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, et al., v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, et al. The San Francisco Chronicle, of same date, reported that the order barred the "U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from delivering water to farmers in the Klamath Project until it devises a plan for protecting coho salmon." (Since 1997, when the coho were listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, the Bureau had continued to reduce the river's flow, especially in dry years, in order to release more water into the A Canal for irrigation.)

The timing of Judge Armstrong's order and the Bureau's failure to comply with the ESA resulted in unintended consequences that have attracted national attention since April 2001. The A Canal irrigators and the powerful Klamath Water Users Association saw the water shortage as a way to get rid of, or at least to weaken, the ESA. The Bureau's program of paying irrigators to idle land in order to provide more water for salmon survival in the lower Klamath River was not popular. Very little land was idled in 2001 despite the Bureau's February warning of a water shortage. So unpopular was the Bureau's other offer -- to buy out willing sellers -- that willing sellers feared for their lives, so threatened were they by unnamed irrigators and/or their friends.

On April 6, 2001, the day Vice President Dick Cheney authorized the Bureau to close the headgates to the A Canal, the Herald and News reported that Oregon and California lawmakers had, for the past week, worked "furiously to resolve the crisis." It may be that the Bush administration had other plans, for Cheney was unwilling to use provisions in the ESA to release more water to the A Canal.

The minimum flows established for anadramous fish in the Klamath River in 1961 have, for years, been called insufficient by prominent Oregon and California fish biologists. With completion that year of Iron Gate Dam in California, salmon lost spawning areas upstream of the dam and below, the latter caused by channel changes.

California's Department of Fish and Game, under political pressure to agree to those minimum flows that later proved too low, has seen the salmon population dwindle and endangered species become extinct. With the continuing loss of Klamath River salmon, once so numerous, Congress in 1986 passed Public Law 99-552 to provide $21 million for a 20-year program to restore anadromous fish populations in the Klamath River and its tributaries below Iron Gate Dam. The program is run by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Given the attitude toward salmon of most of the irrigators, mostly cattlemen, little has been been accomplished for salmon survival.

During the Clinton administration, studies were begun at the Institute for Natural Systems Engineering in Logan, Utah, to determine what the flow releases at Iron Gate Dam should be. Phase I, published in August 1999, followed by Phase II in November 2001, confirmed that the flows were too low, and recommended an increase. Judge Armstrong built her April 2001 restraining order, filed on April 4, around the failure of the Bureau to abide by the Endangered Species Act and the Phase I flow recommendations.

On April 6, 2001, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, feared that "political pressure is being exercised 'at the highest levels' to negate the force of Armstrong's ruling. 'They're trying to force the agencies to back away from what science requires and cut a deal where irrigators get some water.'" (Spain's fears were justified: Armstrong reversed that ruling in May 2002.)

So secretively does Rove move that his appearance in Oregon did not become known until July 2003. His involvement with the Klamath Project and the A Canal irrigators may have begun soon after Bush received Senator Smith's letter of March 29, 2001, urging intervention by the administration's domestic policy experts. Rove may even have contributed to Vice President Cheney's April 6 decision to close the headgates to the A Canal. Sen. Smith arrived in Klamath Falls on April 7. On April 8, the Herald and News reported that Smith had said to a crowd of 700 that "it was OK to voice their anger." "'I am here to be your whipping post,'" said Smith. "'I want you to vent your frustrations.'" According to Smith, Cheney's order, bitter as it was, constituted a victory of sorts. That remark suggests that Smith, Cheney, and perhaps Rove, knew more about how the water cutoff at the A Canal would later be used to the administration's advantage than Smith was free to divulge.

Rallies to protest the closing of the headgates were organized by local dealers in fertilizer and farm equipment, and covered in the Herald and News. ("People before fish" summarizes the attitude of the irrigators and town-and-country people who swelled the crowds.) On May 7, 2001, the paper described in detail that day's rally which attracted a crowd of 8,000. The story, captioned 50 buckets of defiance in the Herald and News, opened with the statement that "Klamath Basin farmers symbolically defied a federal ban on irrigation today by dumping 50 buckets of water into the A Canal." Sen. Smith and Rep. Greg Walden put their stamp of approval on the protest when they accepted the first two buckets of water from Lake Ewauna and sent them down the line to the A Canal.

Most of the crowd enjoyed the excitement. Others worried about the outcome, especially members of the Klamath Indian tribes who live and have water rights in streams in the vicinity of Chiloquin where the Sprague River enters the Williamson, a tributary of Upper Klamath Lake. By the early 1900s, the upper Klamath River had become the Williamson. The source of the Klamath then became Lake Ewauna, a very small lake in the middle of Klamath Falls.

The May 7 event was the last of the downtown demonstrations. The premises of the six headgates to the A Canal, surrounded by a chainlink fence, became the next protest center. A broken headgate and water flowing in the A Canal was discovered on June 30. By noon, "the canal was about a quarter full," reported the Herald and News on July 1. The person responsible for maintaining the canal refused to repair the broken headgate, leaving no alternative to the Bureau but to assign two of its employees to do the job. The headgate was repaired and closed on July 2 and broken again that night.

On July 5, the Herald and News reported on the Independence Day demonstration at the headgates that "turned into more than organizers expected when a group of men using a cutting torch to open the gates and allow water to flow out of Upper Klamath Lake" arrived in a green Ford pickup truck without license plates. A crowd of more than 100 watched the performance along with local police officers who remained in their cars. No arrests were made. The Bureau of Reclamation then asked for assistance from the FBI and requested that U.S. marshals be assigned to protect the A Canal. The marshals arrived on July 14. Several weeks later they were replaced by Park Service police and later by Fish and Wildlife Service police. There was no end to the devious means used by the demonstrators to get water from the lake into the A Canal. When told by the officers to stop, they would, but only until the officers left for the day. Then, back to their picks and shovels.

For the duration of their assignments the officers were the butt of provocative remarks from the demonstrators, many of them strangers who had installed their campers and motorhomes on the premises, passed out literature, and littered the grounds with posters to broadcast their pet peeve that fish were getting water that belonged to the irrigators. Their 24-hour vigil did not diminish in size until September when two of them were handed subpoenas. On January 3, 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that from July 14 through September 26, 2001, the cost to the Bureau for federal police to "guard" the A Canal headgates was about $750,000.

En route to Klamath Falls by mid-August 2001 were convoys of demonstrators from distant states, organized by Klamath Bucket Brigade, Inc., in collaboration with the Nevada-based Jarbidge Shovel Brigade. An Associated Press story, captioned "Convoy from Malibu starts," appeared in the August 16 Herald and News. Nearly every day for a week there was news of a convey starting for Klamath Falls. The inevitable pickup truck with a ten-foot-tall bucket marked their progress. All the convoys were welcomed upon arrival, though one from Kalispell, Montana, was asked to leave after learning it had a few Militia members along. According to the Herald and News, the latter planned to burn a green swastika at the A Canal headgates. On August 21, the Herald and News in a story captioned "Shovels and buckets," reported that "Big rigs, riders on horseback, pickup trucks from several Western states and a horse-drawn wagon converged on downtown Klamath Falls this morning for a parade to support local farmers." The event was attended by a crowd estimated at 4,000.

On January 28, 2002, in "Convoys backing farmers to return," the Herald and News reported that Klamath Bucket Brigade, Inc., in Klamath Falls was planning convoys that would depart from Maine, Virginia, and Florida in the spring. Those convoys failed to get underway, but the Bucket Brigade convoy and probably the Nevada-based convoy apparently left on schedule. The Brigade's leader hoped to raise $400,000 to $500,000. Apparently his 15-member convoy was well enough received, but the crowds were not particularly generous with donations during stops in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida. The October 12, 2002, Herald and News, in a story captioned "Bucket Brigade convoy reaches Florida," supplied a vivid description of what it was like to travel with the convoy.

It is not inconceivable that Karl Rove encouraged the use of rallies and convoys to attract sympathy for irrigators on federal reclamation projects. He may also have cautioned federal police against arresting persons caught in the act of vandalizing government property in Klamath Falls. During 2002, no stone was left unturned to reelect Senator Smith in November and win Oregon's vote in 2004. On January 5, Smith, Rep. Walden, and Rove joined Bush in Air Force One to fly to Portland where Bush pledged help to Klamath Basin farmers. On January 8, the Herald and News, reported that Bush had told his audience that he shared Smith and Walden's "'concern about people living off the land. I told these two good men we'll do everything we can to make sure water is available for people who farm.'"

Farmers on federal reclamation projects don't make their living off the land; crop and irrigation water subsidies keep them alive. Water subsidies attributed to Bureau projects were requested by a congressmen from the Congressional Budget Office in the late 1980s. Irrigators on a Baker (eastern Oregon) project were paying $1.17 an acre for water; the full cost an acre was 20.95, leaving a subsidy of 94 percent. Irrigators on the Klamath Project were paying $1.00 an acre; the full cost was not given. Irrigators on the Columbia Basin project were paying $2.63 an acre; the full cost an acre was 63.18, leaving a subsidy of 96 percent.

According to the CBO's 1988 report to the congressman, estimates of the cost of providing irrigation water subsidies to 90 of the Bureau's irrigation projects ranged from $33.7 billion to $70.3 billion. Recent economic studies show that agriculture in the Klamath Basin has been on a long steady slide for many years for reasons that have nothing to do with the Endangered Species Act, and very little to do with NAFTA. The cost to the federal government of maintaining the Klamath Poject has been phenomenal ever since 1910. Klamath Falls residents interviewed for a book on the Klamath Project attributed the city's prosperity to the Project. Economists differ. "The farm sector represents under 10 percent of Klamath County's total employment and under one percent of the county's total personal income," one Oregon economist told the author of an article in the December 2001 U.S. Water News.

An Associated Press story by John Heilprin, "Report says recreation is best moneymaker for Klamath River," appeared in the November 2, 2002, San Francisco Chronicle. "Returning water to the Klamath River for recreational users," wrote Heilprin, "would reap more economic benefits than diverting it for farmers, loggers and hydropower producers, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey." That report is by economist Aaron J. Douglas and statistician Andrew Sleeper. The economic value of outdoor pursuits such as fishing and boating on the river and its major tributaries could be as high as $4.3 billion annually. (Close to Klamath Falls are 20 miles of the Klamath River for which the Bureau of Land Management and local residents acquired Wild and Scenic River status in the 1990s. A good start has been made.)

Karl Rove was not named in the January 8 Herald and News, mentioned above, and may not have been at the meeting in Portland Bush addressed on January 5. Rove's visits to Oregon were not known until July 30, 2003, when The Wall Street Journal published Tom Hamburger's "Oregon Water Saga Illuminates Rove's Methods With Agencies." On January 6, 2002, Rove badgered some 50 Interior Department managers at an Interior department conference with an uninvited Power Point presentation which Hamburger said he "uses when soliciting Republican donors." Bush had lost Oregon by less than 1% in 2000, wrote Hamburger. Rove warned his captive audience that "'Control of Congress will turn on handful of races decided by local issues, candidate quality, money raised, campaign performance, etc.'" Continuing, Hamburger noted that Rove had met with a half dozen or so farmers and ranchers on February 2, 2002, after which the "White House formed a cabinet-level task force on Klamath issues."

February 2 was on a Saturday, and those farmers and ranchers Hamburger mentioned were probably officials of the Klamath Water Users Association. If so, Rove was there to brief them on a National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Interim Report that was not supposed to be released until 4:00 pm, EST, Wednesday, February 6. Rove, secretive as usual, was not named in the Herald and News story of February 4, captioned Irrigation cutoff wasn't justified.

The Academy was angry that the story had been leaked, presumably by someone in Interior, its client. (More likely it was Rove who leaked it.) Fisheries biologists in the Fish and Wildlife Service were angry at the Academy's committee for declaring that the irrigation cutoff wasn't justified.

A fisheries biologist at Oregon State in Corvallis was treated with disdain by the committee's chairman when he spoke up during the committee's public meeting on the Interim Report on March 7 in Medford, Oregon: he had been one of the reviewers of the committee's draft report and principal author of a report supplied the committee that dealt with the endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake. Regarding the threatened coho in the Klamath River, the committee accorded the subject less than four pages in the 26-page report. It concluded that "factors other than dry-year flows appear to be limiting to survival and maintenance of coho."

Notice of the cabinet-level task force on Klamath issues, referred to by Hamburger, was released from the Office of the Press Secretary on March 1, 2002. Called the Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group, its membership comprised of the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. Norton was named chairman and told to work closely with Commerce secretary Don Evans, a Texas oil man who claims a long and enduring friendship with the President. Neither has demonstrated concern for jobless commercial fishermen in western coastal towns and the survival of salmon as food for local Indians and other humankind.

On March 29, we meet two members of that Federal Working Group in a Herald and News story headlined 'Let the water flow.' Shown in a photo by H&N photographer Gary Thain are working group members Gale Norton and the Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman. We also meet Senator Smith, and KWUA official and farmer Dave Cacka as they release Upper Klamath Lake water to the A Canal. Cacka is a plaintiff in Steven Lewis Kandra; David Cacka; Klamath Irrigation District; Tulelake Irrigation District, and Klamath Water Users Association v. United States of America; Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior; Don Evans, Secretary of Commerce. Case No. 01-6124-TC, U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. (This case may have been discussed with Rove during his visits with KWUA officials.)

Supporting data for the plaintiffs was supplied by Alex J. Horne. A paper on the endangered suckers by D.A.Vogel, K.R. Marine, and A.J.Horne for the KWUA was among the references provided the NAS/NRC committee. Horne and Vogel, both KWUA consultants, were listed as Review Participants in the Interim Report. Such reviewers do not see the final drafts of Academy reports before they are released, but that offers little protection when the committee has undertaken to review a hot political potato that required an interim report in little more than two months.

The interim report has had some serious side effects. It was used by the Bush administration to influence Judge Armstrong to reverse her April 2001 ruling. In the process of getting Senator Smith reelected, it was used in 2002 to promise Oregon irrigators more water and a dependable supply of water for Klamath Project irrigators through 2012. The Project's irrigation season begins on or about April 1. The water was released with considerable ceremony on March 29, as mentioned above. Twice in April, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, Michael Kelly, was ordered by the Bureau of Reclamation's acting area manager of the Klamath Project to revise the biological opinion to meet Interior's specifications. In other words, Kelly was to use the Interim Report to justify taking from salmon some of the river's flow under the 1961 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreement so that the Bureau could increase the release of water to the A Canal.

Twice Kelly's efforts to arrive at a compromise were rejected by the acting area manager, who then took upon himself the responsibility of producing a biological opinion acceptable to Interior's Norton. Kelly refused to sign off on the Bureau's May 2002 revision. In mid-May, Kelly's superior in the NMFS (now NOAA Fisheries) signed off on the flawed BO. A week later Judge Armstrong filed a reversal of her April 2001 ruling. Here we have a situation where the Commerce Department collaborated with the Interior Department to let Interior reduce the minimum flow for salmon in order to send more water down the A Canal. The unintended consequence was that in late September-early October, 2002, the Klamath River was so low and so polluted that about 34,000 salmon died in the first 40 miles of their ascent to their spawning beds. In November, Senator Smith was reelected.

Among the Commerce Department's responsibilities is the protection of ocean fish for domestic consumption. Salmon are ocean fish, and very much in need of protection. They aren't going to get it during the Bush administration because Secretary Norton and Secretary Evans are headed in another direction. The administration's policy is to privatize the water flowing in Bureau of Reclamation irrigation ditches. As Secretary of State Powell intimated to Paul O'Neill when he was Secretary of the Treasury, water was growing scarce all over the world and would become the oil of the twenty-first century.

Rove is said to have urged Bush to appoint Norton; Don Evans' appointment needed no urging. It is of particular interest that Evans, as well as Norton, is one of the defendants in Kandra, et al., v. USA, et al.. Without Rove's recent identification in Oregon, this case would not have attracted much attention: the Klamath Water Users Association (like Westlands Water District in California) has been filing lawsuits against Interior department agencies for years, and so have various environmental organizations.

Much is at stake in California's Klamath-Trinity river part of the basin if salmon are to survive. Many timber sales have been made by the administration. About 200 million board feet (approximately 40,000 log truck loads) are to come out of Klamath National Forest through which the Salmon River flows to the Klamath River. In Winema National Forest in Oregon, water banking is viewed as the solution to the irrigators' water needs. The region is running alive with entrepreneurs in search of water. In June 2003, Upper Klamath Lake, the A Canal's water source, had fallen below the required level.

On June 25, the Herald and News, in "Klamath Project shut down," reported that "irrigation diversion through the A Canal will be suspended until it is clear the Bureau can meet a lake level requirement on June 30" for the endangered suckers. Without Hamburger's June 25 reference to Rove, we would not know that an "Irate" Rep. Greg Walden had called Rove's office to protest the shut down. The Bureau's decision was reversed later that day, wrote Hamburger. The shutdown created a dire emergency a week later. Nine Oregon, California, and federal officials met in Klamath Falls on July 2. At issue was whether to reclassify the water year from "below average" to "dry." (A wet April had encouraged the Bureau, on June 13, to change the water year from dry to below average.)

On July 2, Project irrigators were told that they "must curtail their water use in order to stretch dwindling supplies [to] last through the month," reported the July 3 Herald and News. That meant a one-third reduction in irrigation water use throughout the rest of July. As explained earlier, the land to be irrigated is between 170,000 to 180,000 acres, not 220,000 as appears in some private sector reports. About 20,000 to 30,000 acres of the Project are irrigated from Bureau impoundments on streams in the Lost River basin. The H&N reported that one-third reduction would reduce the A Canal diversion to 1,060 cfs, or 683 million gallons per day. On July 11, it reported that the water year had been reclassified back to "dry," as issued in April. That means more water for irrigation and less water in the lake for endangered suckers, explained the H&N. Presumably it also meant less water for salmon.

"Interior to look into Klamath policy/Politics may have affected water flows" is the caption of an Associated Press story by Pete Yost in the September 6, 2003, San Francisco Chronicle. The Interior department's Inspector General was asked by Senator John Kerry to investigate Rove's briefings of dozens of political appointees in the Interior department during the previous year and a half. Yost wrote that the IG would "look into possible political interference by the White House in developing water policy in the Klamath River Basin on the Oregon-California line." According to Yost, the IG responded to Kerry in a letter dated August 28: "If any evidence of political interference is found, 'we have no authority over members of the White House staff and therefore would immediately notify the Department of Justice, Office of Public Integrity.'"

Kerry was "concerned that political pressure from the White House may have intimidated staff and influenced policy," wrote Yost. Quite likely it did, especially Interior department scientists working in the fields of water quality, fish and wildlife survival, and Indian water rights. According to Hamburger, Neil McCaleb, then assistant Interior secretary, recalled "the 'chilling effect' of Mr. Rove's remarks. Wayne Smith, then with the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Mr. Rove reminded the managers of the need to 'support our base.' Both men since have left the department."

It does not take much imagination to see how extra water in the A Canal helped to convince Oregon irrigators that they should reelect Smith. Rove was with Bush when Bush arrived in Portland on January 5, 2002, with his promise of more irrigation water for Oregon. On February 2, Rove met with irrigators in Oregon. On March 29, water was diverted to the A Canal in the presence of Secretary Norton and Senator Smith. In November, Smith was reelected.

Doris Ostrander Dawdy
3055 23rd Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94132-1533

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