WASHINGTON — The House Natural Resources Committee announced Thursday that it will hold hearings into Vice President Dick Cheney's involvement in Klamath River water management that many think led to the die-off of more than 70,000 salmon four years ago.
"It certainly appears that this administration will stop at nothing to achieve political gain from natural resources disasters," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the panel.
Three dozen House Democrats from Oregon and California asked for the hearing in a letter to Rahall after the Washington Post reported on details of Cheney's intervention.
According to the newspaper, Cheney personally contacted Sue Ellen Wooldridge — a Northern Californian who then was Interior Secretary Gale Norton's top aide for the Klamath — about his concerns over the Bureau of Land Management's decision to stop deliveries of irrigation water. At the time the region was emerging from a severe drought in 2001, and the BLM was enforcing a finding by scientists that water diversions to farmers would harm endangered salmon and suckerfish.
The newspaper reported that Cheney then urged the Interior Department to seek a report from the National Academy of Sciences on the biological justification for the decision, and called the academy to clear the way. When the academy found the decision was not justified, the water deliveries to farmers were restored.
Later that fall, thousands of dead Chinook salmon littered the lower reaches of the river near its confluence with the Trinity River. The die-off was traced to an explosion of pathogens that attacked the fish. California and Oregon attributed the disaster to federal water policies.
At the time, it was reported that White House political adviser Karl Rove had been involved, but the Interior Department's inspector general later found otherwise.
Still, the restoration of the water deliveries was regarded as politically inspired. After the Post's report on Cheney's involvement Wednesday, 36 House Democrats from Oregon and California wrote a letter to Rahall asking for the hearings.
Behind the letter was Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., whose district includes the river's lower reaches.
"We've known since 2002 that the Bush administration manipulated science in a perverse and petty attempt to win votes," Thompson said. "Now it appears the manipulation goes straight to the top."
Thompson charged that Cheney's interference may have violated the Endangered Species Act. At a minimum, it cost U.S. taxpayers $60 million in emergency aid to commercial fishermen last month because of a nearly complete closure of the offshore salmon season. Last year's river run would have been the offspring of the returning fish in 2002.
Asked about the committee decision to hold a hearing, the vice president's office dismissed it as political.
"It is sad that the Democrats in Congress want to investigate rather than legislate," said Cheney spokeswoman Megan McGinn.
But Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the BLM in Sacramento, defended the agency, saying there was no policy reversal by the agency that Cheney could have influenced.
A date for the hearing has not been set, committee spokeswoman Allyson Ivins Groff said.