It's hardly news that Karl Rove, President Bush's political strategist, keeps a hawklike eye on domestic policies emerging from the executive branch, the better to make sure that everything meshes with his boss's political interests and those of the Republican Party. Yet rarely have Mr. Rove's efforts to bend policy to politics been more transparent than his intervention in a seemingly remote dispute involving water rights in Oregon's Klamath River basin. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal report last week, Mr. Rove has worked almost obsessively behind the scenes to ensure that the outcome satisfies the party's agricultural base at the expense of conservationists and Indian tribes.
At issue is a long-simmering dispute over water flows in the Klamath River, which runs through southern Oregon and Northern California. Even in good years these flows can barely satisfy rival claims. Farmers want water for irrigation, while conservationists and Indian tribes want it for endangered fish species, including downriver salmon. The farmers have prevailed at almost every step of the way. In March 2002, the administration staged an elaborate ceremony in Klamath Falls to release irrigation water that had been held back to help the fish. In May, it unveiled a 10-year plan widely seen as pro-farmer. The fish have done less well. Last year, 33,000 salmon died in the lower Klamath, in one of the country's biggest fish kills. A subsequent report by the state of California blamed federal policies. Two weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that the 10-year plan itself contained flawed science.
The farmers clearly owe a considerable debt to Mr. Rove. He has journeyed to Oregon twice in the past 19 months to solicit their views, and early last year he showed up at a Fish and Wildlife Service retreat to make clear that agricultural interests came first. The Interior Department insists that Mr. Rove did not order any particular "outcome," though it would have been hard to miss the message.
The distressing thing here is that the administration is spending so much time on politics that it is ignoring obvious win-win solutions that could benefit all stakeholders. One idea is to have the federal government buy land from willing sellers, thus reducing agricultural demand for water and freeing up reliable supplies for everyone. That could provide a more lasting gift to the region than Mr. Rove's shortsighted politics can possibly confer.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company