As House Democrats investigate whether political interference may have led to the die-off of about 70,000 salmon on the Klamath River, local observers worry fragile negotiations aimed at ending long-simmering fights over water in Southern Oregon could be derailed.




Specifically, the U.S. House of Representatives is investigating whether Vice President Dick Cheney secretly intervened in the development of a 10-year water plan for the naturally arid Klamath Basin.




Critics said the U.S. Department of the Interior caved to White House pressure when it decided in 2002, despite objections from scientists, to divert water from the Klamath River so farmers could irrigate their parched fields.




The reduced river flow that resulted set the gruesome stage for the largest salmon kill ever in the West and a collapse of the region's already struggling commercial fishing industry, they said.




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




John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, said the Bush administration has a long history of "meddling with sensitive scientific judgment," and not just in the Klamath Basin.




"Interfering with the judgment of scientists for political purposes is a subject that legitimately should be looked at," DeVoe said, adding that the continuing negotiations are a separate issue.




Since the record die-off, Southern Oregon anglers, farmers, environmentalists and Indian tribes have worked toward a negotiated settlement over how water in the nearly hundred-year-old reclamation project is allocated to competing interests.




Glen Spain, a spokesman for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in Eugene, questions whether much good can come from the congressional probe.




"Congress deserves to know what happened: Policy needs to be driven by science, not politics," Spain said, adding that his concern is that months of talks could be jeopardized if the water issue becomes politicized once again.




"We cannot be lurching from crisis to crisis," Spain said. "There is only so much water, and all the politics in the world will not make more rain," adding that a settlement is the best path forward for fishermen and farmers.




Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said he too is worried that the hearings could have an impact on negotiations by opening old wounds.




"This cannot help but end in finger-pointing," Addington said. "And nothing good comes out of that."




covers government for the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can he reached at csrizo@hotmail.com.