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Oregon Water Saga Illuminates Rove's Methods With Agencies

The Wall Street Journal investigates how White House political strategist Karl Rove's influence, and Oregon Senator Gordon Smith's re-election ambitions, may have set the stage for the massive 2002 Klamath River salmon kill.

By Tom Hamburger
The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- In a darkened conference room, White House political strategist Karl Rove was making an unusual address to 50 top managers at the U.S. Interior Department. Flashing color slides, he spoke of poll results, critical constituencies -- and water levels in the Klamath River basin.

At the time of the meeting, in January 2002, Mr. Rove had just returned from accompanying President Bush on a trip to Oregon, where they visited with a Republican senator facing re-election. Republican leaders there wanted to support their agricultural base by diverting water from the river basin to nearby farms, and Mr. Rove signaled that the administration did, too.

Three months later, Interior Secretary Gale Norton stood with Sen. Gordon Smith in Klamath Falls and opened the irrigation-system head gates that increased the water supply to 220,000 acres of farmland -- a policy shift that continues to stir bitter criticism from environmentalists and Indian tribes.

Though Mr. Rove's clout within the administration often is celebrated, this episode offers a rare window into how he works behind the scenes to get things done. One of them is with periodic visits to cabinet departments. Over the past two years Mr. Rove or his top aide, Kenneth Mehlman -- now manager of Mr. Bush's re-election campaign -- have visited nearly every agency to outline White House campaign priorities, review polling data and, on occasion, call attention to tight House, Senate and gubernatorial races that could be affected by regulatory action.

Every administration has used cabinet resources to promote its election interests. But some presidential scholars and former federal and White House officials say the systematic presentation of polling data and campaign strategy goes beyond what Mr. Rove's predecessors have done.

"We met together and talked a lot about issues of the day, but never in relation to polling results, specific campaigns or the president's popularity," says Lisa Guide, a political appointee at Interior during the Clinton administration. Frank Donatelli, political director in the Reagan White House, says "we were circumspect about discussing specific administration rulings that had yet to be made."

Mr. Rove declined to comment. White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee says the agency visits simply were designed to keep political appointees apprised of the president's accomplishments and priorities. Klamath River water levels were an issue at least as far back as the 2000 presidential campaign. During the unusually dry summer of 2001, angry farmers stormed the head gates to forcibly release water, but the Bush administration generally resisted their demands. In 2002, the issue continued to loom large as Mr. Smith faced a potentially difficult re-election challenge.

On Jan. 5, Mr. Rove accompanied the president to an appearance in Portland with Mr. Smith. The president signaled his desire to accommodate agricultural interests, saying "We'll do everything we can to make sure water is available for those who farm."

The next day, Mr. Rove made sure that commitment didn't fall through the cracks. He visited the 50 Interior managers attending a department retreat at a Fish and Wildlife Service conference center in Shepherdstown, W.Va. In a PowerPoint presentation Mr. Rove also uses when soliciting Republican donors, he brought up the Klamath and made clear that the administration was siding with agricultural interests.

His remarks weren't entirely welcome -- especially by officials grappling with the competing arguments made by environmentalists, who wanted river levels high to protect endangered salmon, and Indian tribes, who depend on the salmon for their livelihoods. Neil McCaleb, then an assistant Interior secretary, recalls the "chilling effect" of Mr. Rove's remarks. Wayne Smith, then with the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, says Mr. Rove reminded the managers of the need to "support our base." Both men since have left the department.

An Interior spokesman, Mark Pfeifle, says Mr. Rove spoke in general terms about the Klamath conflict in the course of a broader discussion. Without directing a policy outcome, Mr. Pfeifle says, Mr. Rove simply "indicated the need to help the basin's farmers." In the end, that is what happened when Interior reversed its previous stance and released more water. Mr. Rove's intervention wasn't the only reason. Mr. McCaleb himself says the biggest factor was a report from the independent National Research Council, which questioned the basis on which Interior scientists had made earlier Klamath flow decisions.

But Mr. Rove didn't let the matter drop after the Shepherdstown meeting. Weeks later, he returned to Oregon and met with a half-dozen or so farmers and ranchers. Thereafter, the White House formed a cabinet-level task force on Klamath issues. The results became clear on March 29, when the water was released to parched farms.

That hasn't ended the controversy. Environmentalists blame the change in water levels for the subsequent death of more than 30,000 salmon, calling it the largest fish kill in the history of the West.

A National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, Michael Kelly, has asked for protection under federal "whistle-blower" laws, saying he was subjected to political pressure to go along with the low-water plan and ordered to ignore scientific evidence casting doubt on the plan. This month, a federal judge ruled the administration violated the Endangered Species Act in the way it justified the water diversion.

Administration officials note that the judge found fault only with a narrow portion of the biological opinion, and didn't order changes in water flow. Interior is investigating the cause of the fish kill, Mr. Pfeifle says.

Oregon farmers point to other factors in the salmon kill, including water temperature and the presence of an infectious disease during salmon-spawning season. And they haven't stopped pressing to keep the irrigation water coming.

A few weeks ago, the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Klamath Falls warned farmers that the department would curtail the irrigation flow. Irate, Republican Rep. Greg Walden began making calls to protest. His first one went to Mr. Rove's office.

Within hours, the idea was dropped. Interior officials say managers from two cabinet departments agreed on a way to avoid it.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH HIM

A look at Karl Rove's involvement in the Klamath River dispute:

"Control of Congress will turn on handful of races decided by local issues, candidate quality, money raised, campaign performance, etc." ---From Rove's 1/6/02 presentation to Interior Dept. officials

Jan. 5, 2002: Rove accompanies Bush, who lost Oregon by less than 1% in 2000, to Portland, Ore.; Bush voices support for Klamath Basin farmers.

Jan. 6: Rove gives presentation to Interior Department officials connecting regulatory actions in key states, including Oregon's Klamath issue, to Republican prospects in the coming elections.

Feb. 2: Rove meets with farmers in Oregon.

March 29: Bush administration sides with farmers, diverts waters for agricultural use.

Sept. 21: Thousands of salmon die in the shallower Klamath River.

June 25, 2003: Regional officials tell Klamath farmers the flow of irrigation water needs to be curtailed; worried congressmen call Rove's office for help. The decision is reversed later in the day.

© 2003 The Wall Street Journal


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