Interior Dept. to Probe Water Policy

By PETE YOST, Associated Press Writer
Yahoo News


WASHINGTON - The inspector general at the Interior Department will look into possible political interference by the White House in developing water policy in the Klamath River Basin in the Northwest.

The inquiry follows the disclosure that President Bush (news - web sites)'s top political adviser, Karl Rove, briefed dozens of political appointees at the Interior Department more than a year and a half ago about diverting water from the Klamath River in Oregon to irrigate farms.

Sen. John Kerry (news, bio, voting record) of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, disclosed the inspector general's plans on Friday.

Last September, 33,000 chinook salmon died in the Klamath River in northern California. The California Department of Fish and Game laid much of the blame on low flows controlled by the federal government for creating conditions that allowed a fatal gill rot disease to spread through the fish.

A report on the fish kill by the Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not been released.

Kerry had asked for the IG investigation after a story about Rove's meeting with the political appointees appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Rove's briefing of Interior's political appointees in January 2002 took place following a trip by Bush and Rove to Oregon, where they focused on the Klamath water issue. Rove made a second trip to Oregon before the department decided to increase the water flow to farms.

Seeking to help their farm constituencies, Republican leaders in the Northwest wanted to divert water to farmers.

In an Aug. 28 letter to Kerry, the inspector general's office said that it will look into whether decision-making on water policy in the Klamath River Basin deviated from normal practices, with special attention to any evidence of political interference or suppression of data.

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 (news - web sites), Office of Public Integrity," said the letter from Interior IG Earl Devaney.

Decisions made by the Interior Department were based on the best available science from the National Academy of Sciences (news - web sites), said Interior spokesman Mark Pfeifle. He said Interior is focused on providing water for people who live and work in the Klamath Basin, including farmers, fishermen and tribes, while also restoring the basin's ecosystem.

Kerry called the probe a positive step, saying he is concerned that political pressure from the White House may have intimidated staff and influenced policy.

Kerry says the Bush administration acted as if agencies like the Interior Department are "a division of the Republican National Committee (news - web sites)."

Pfeifle said candidates on the campaign trail "seem only focused on partisan sniping."

White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee has said it is "entirely appropriate" for members of the president's staff to occasionally provide updates on the president's accomplishments and agenda.

Snee has said the president established a Cabinet-level working group on Klamath that is committed to sustainable agriculture and jobs, improved water quality and stronger fish populations.

Steve Pedery of the conservation group WaterWatch said that the Bush administration's approach is to pick one interest politically favorable to its goals and say, "You get the water." Pedery said the solution should be to try to bring demand back into balance with supply "so everybody can get a fair share."

The Interior Department's Pfeifle, who attended Rove's January 2002 meeting at a weekend retreat in West Virginia, has said the Klamath water diversion issue took up "probably 30 seconds to a minute" of a 25-minute presentation to department political appointees.

Pfeifle has said other matters touched on in Rove's presentation included having a Hispanic media coordinator, reaching out to suburbanites on environmental issues and outreach to segments of organized labor that support oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.



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