I first heard of Karl Rove on July 30, 2003. Tom Hamburger’s Wall Street Journal story about Rove’s PowerPoint presentation to officials at the Department of the Interior finally revealed to me, as they say, the man behind the curtain.

While Rove was making his presentation in January of 2002, I was working on an analysis of the effects of a proposed 10-year federal irrigation plan on Endangered Species Act-listed coho salmon in the Klamath River. I was trying to determine whether the proposed project would, in the language of the ESA, “jeopardize the continued existence” of the Southern Oregon and Northern California stock of coho salmon.

I had heard about political pressure on biologists during controversial ESA analyses, but I couldn’t imagine how exactly that pressure could be applied. We have a clear process that requires a “logic train” and there isn’t any way around that no matter what some politician wants, I thought.

Apparently, Rove’s PowerPoint presentation included polling data related to Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith’s re-election bid. And Rove reminded the Interior officials of the president’s desire to support Smith’s political base by supporting farmers in Oregon’s Klamath River basin. Rove indicated that the president wanted the Klamath Project ESA consultation to have a specific result — give the water to the farmers.

Meanwhile, back in California, my supervisors and I were hammering out our Biological Opinion. While the evidence was far from conclusive (it never is conclusive in these kinds of analyses), our finding was that the irrigation plan would jeopardize coho.

Once a draft jeopardy finding is made, the next step is to draft a so-called Reasonable and Prudent Alternative. In other words, I now had to design a 10-year flow plan that would protect the fish and still allow adequate irrigation deliveries. The trouble is that there’s just not enough water to go around in some years.

The federal government has simply made too many promises with the Klamath River’s water. They’ve promised water to farmers so they can support their families and feed the rest of us, and they’ve promised enough water to Native American tribes on the river and commercial fishermen on the coast to support their fish and fisheries.

So I drafted a plan to protect the fish and provide irrigation water with what little water was available. Not surprisingly, the Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the irrigation project, rejected my plan as not reasonable and prudent. So the next step was to meet with Reclamation and try to work something out.

Reclamation came up with an alternative that they thought was reasonable and prudent. I, on the other hand, thought that their alternative was fundamentally illegal. But I was still ready to analyze their plan to see if it really was adequate to protect coho, and to let the agencies worry about whether the alternative was otherwise legal.

A couple of days later my supervisors and I were informed that we (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries) would accept Reclamation’s alternative with no further analysis.

I refused to participate, naively thinking that they might need a salmon biologist to explain their salmon opinion. I thought I could apply some back-pressure and get my agency to resort to doing this correctly.

NOAA Fisheries just stuck Reclamation’s alternative in place of my alternative and then signed off on it. There was a gaping hole in the logic, and there was no actual salmon biologist responsible for the thing. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone up the chain of command.

Anyway, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Vennamen stood with Senator Smith in the spring of 2002 and opened the irrigation canal. And later that summer, thousands of dead salmon lined the Klamath River. The official estimate is that up to 68,000 adult Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, as well as dozens of ESA-listed coho salmon, were killed. In addition, an estimated 200,000 juvenile salmon died during the summer. The official reports conclude that low water flow was a “causative factor.”

All summer long I considered filing for whistleblower protection and going public. After the fish kill, I heard a NOAA Fisheries official give a speech claiming that the Klamath plan was working fine and they had no intention of revisiting it for several years.

So then I went public.

With the help of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, I submitted my whistleblower disclosure to the Office of Special Counsel (the agency that is now investigating Rove’s PowerPoints). The OSC sat on my disclosure for several months beyond their deadline, and then punted by claiming that it was a question of scientific opinion and not law.

More than three years later, the courts finally decided that the Klamath Biological Opinion was illegal — for the exact reasons I had outlined in my disclosure. The court also makes clear that the agency had violated the law and that it wasn’t simply a question of differing scientific opinion.

Some of the court’s opinion is interesting enough to point out:

“While [NOAA Fisheries] can draw conclusions based on less than conclusive scientific evidence, it cannot base its conclusions on no evidence.” And, “an agency does not avoid the likelihood of jeopardy to a listed species when it disregards the life cycle of the species in crafting the measures designed to protect it. Nor can the agency provide only partial protection for a species for several generations without any analysis of how doing so will affect the species.”


So how does an agency craft an important document like this, based on “no evidence,” which then helps kill perhaps a quarter-of-a-million salmon, and then

doesn’t even bother to say “oops”?

Because Karl Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation.

The OSC says they will leave no stone unturned in this new investigation. I hope they do a more thorough job this time.

Mike Kelly (koulanjan @hotmail.com) resigned from NOAA Fisheries in 2004 and now consults on fish and river protection projects. This is reprinted, slightly abridged, with the author’s permission, from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility’s Undercover Activist blog .