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Klamath water pact said at risk

July 14, 2007 by David Whitney, Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON -- Some House Republicans are worried that a congressional hearing into Vice President Dick Cheney's intervention in the Klamath River basin crisis five years ago could upset negotiations to end years of battling over the water.

The Washington Post reported last month that Cheney secretly intervened in 2002 in an effort to make sure the Bureau of Reclamation didn't repeat the shutoff of irrigation water to farmers to protect endangered fish.

After the story appeared, 36 California and Oregon Democrats asked for a hearing on the issue, saying the vice president's political interference may have helped cause the die-off of 70,000 salmon, producing a fishery disaster from Portland, Ore., to Morro Bay on California's Central Coast.

The House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled the hearing for July 31 in Washington, D.C.

Republican Reps. Wally Herger of Marysville and John Doolittle of Roseville joined Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., in asking the committee to also schedule a field hearing in Yreka because they fear the Washington hearing will reignite old wounds as farmers, fishermen, Indian tribes and environmentalists are nearing a settlement of the long-simmering fight over management of the federal water project.

In an interview, Herger said the Washington hearing is destined to be "a witch hunt" because there is no evidence Cheney did anything improper.

"I would hope and pray that the vice president would have been involved," said Herger, whose district includes California agricultural areas irrigated by the Klamath project. "I hope the president was involved, because I was sure asking him to get involved."

But Herger said the good news out of the crisis, caused in 2001 when water was turned off to farmers and in 2002 with the salmon die-off, is that all sides are trying to negotiate a solution.

Rep. Wally Herger, R-Marysville, joined two other GOP congressmen in requesting a field hearing in Yreka to highlight progress in reaching an accord on water rights.

Those talks, while secret, have caused many to believe a deal could be reached by the end of the year, resolving many of the thorniest policies over how water is allocated in the basin.

Doolittle said he is concerned about repoliticizing the Klamath controversy because it could upset the negotiations.

"That would be a shame, because this has been a largely intractable problem until the political miracle happened -- which is that all the different interests in the basin decided to work together," Doolittle said.

"I would hate to see something that took so long to gel impeded, because we truly do have the promise of getting this issue resolved," he said.

In their letter, the three Republicans asked for a separate Yreka hearing focused on the cooperation.

"By highlighting the positive efforts that have occurred in the basin since the devastating water shutoff of 2001 and the 2002 fish die-off, and the constructive dialogue that is ongoing, we believe Congress can highlight how political differences can be set aside in an effort to reach solutions that enable all interests to get well together," they said.

But as of Friday, Herger's office said it still had received no response to the Yreka hearing request, and Herger said in the interview he was getting increasingly pessimistic it would be held.

Federal officials were reluctant to comment on whether the hearings could have an impact on negotiations.

"Hopefully, there would be no impact," said Jeff McCracken, the Bureau of Reclamation's spokesman in Sacramento. But McCracken said the subject of the Washington hearing is inherently contentious and political.

Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said he is worried the Washington hearing will ignite new battles over old issues.

"I'm not sure what good comes out of this," he said. "We're doing good things now. These talks are difficult but productive. We want to look forward, to move on. Depending on how this hearing is handled, this could be politically very difficult."

Glen Spain, spokesman for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which has been highly critical of Bush administration water policies in the Klamath basin, said he thinks Congress can review history without harming the talks.

"Congress and the public have a right to know what happened," Spain said. But he credited the administration for its more recent support of negotiations, calling them "far more productive than the mistakes of the past."

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