Senator Gordon Smith Wednesday continued to defend the Bush administration's 2002 decision to allow Klamath basin water to be used by Oregon farmers to water their crops.
Later, 75,000 Klamath River fish died in one of the largest fish kills on record. Smith toured central Oregon with several new members of his 2008 campaign staff, as the Klamath River Basin emerged as a key talking point for state Democrats. From Madras, Ethan Lindsey reports.
Democrats haven't even decided on their nominee to challenge Republican Senator Gordon Smith next year, but the partisan attacks have already begun.
The Democratic Party of Oregon just sent out a press release saying Smith lied about the 2002 Klamath River Basin decision. Democrats highlighted an editorial this week in the Eugene Register Guard.
The newspaper said that in a meeting with its editors and reporters, Smith "ignored and omitted" key information about the 2002 decision making process. Smith responded that he thinks his critics forget how unhappy farmers were in 2002 when the water was originally cut off.
Gordon Smith: "There's a lot of revisionism going on. If you look back at the editorial pages and the overwhelming feeling of Oregonians, that when water was cut off to farmers for the first time in 95 years, that was a wrong that needed to be righted."
Leading up to the 2002 election, Smith publicly criticized federal water management for choking off the irrigation pipes to farmers. And as election day neared, Smith went to the White House to lobby for the water to be turned back on.
In a series of articles about the power of Vice President Cheney, the Washington Post revealed that Cheney personally involved himself in the decision to overturn the federal rule that withheld the water.
Gordon Smith: "Let me be clear, I didn't talk to Cheney. I talked to the President of the United States. He obviously made delegatory decisions that involved the Vice President. And what needs to be remembered is the Vice President is a constitutional officer of our government."
Smith's tour of central Oregon included a stop at the Warm Springs tribal reservation, a meeting with the new 27-year-old mayor of Madras, and a groundbreaking ceremony for the Redmond airport expansion.
Along with Smith, the Redmond airport event drew Republican Congressman Greg Walden, of Hood River, and Smith's Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Ron Wyden.
All three politicians say they are unhappy with the political sniping that is shaping the Klamath River Basin debate. Walden says that the 2002 decision is past, and people should just move on.
He points to the negotiations going on right now in California that could resolve some of the key differences between fisherman, farmers, and environmentalists.
Greg Walden: "The key here is that we should be focusing on the future. You've got the settlement group meeting, they're trying to come up with a basin-wide plan that is backed by the fisherman, farmers, tribes and the agencies. They hope to have their proposal public and ready to go in November. A lot of the noise out their, I think, is designed to blow up that process."
Wyden says he's hopeful.
Ron Wyden: "I've been in touch with folks in Klamath Falls and my sense is there's a lot of goodwill and a lot of cooperation. Obviously, when you are competing for a scarce resource, that tends to cause more polarization.”
The talks are ongoing but face a November deadline for an agreement. Twenty-six groups are involved. Despite the political optimism, tribal leaders and environmentalists have already publicly questioned whether the Bush administration is politically involving itself again - this time to secure water for farmers along with the subsidized power to pump it.
Smith doesn't deny that he got the Bush administration involved last time. But he says there is no link between the federal water diversion and the massive fish kill. And he says he doubts the salmon die-off was the reason for a drop in the fish harvest off the coast later that year.
Gordon Smith: "I make no apology for helping with my influence. I didn't make the decision. I encouraged it, I support, and I defend it today."
When asked if he's worried that the Klamath River Basin will emerge as one of the key issues of the 2008 election, Smith said he hoped so. If the current political climate is any indication, he may get his wish.