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US clears Bush adviser over water management

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department's inspector general has found no basis for an assertion by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry that White House political advisers interfered in Northwest water policy.

The inspector general said President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was not involved in a 2002 decision to divert water from the Klamath River in Oregon to irrigate farms.

While Rove mentioned the Klamath in passing during a briefing with senior Interior officials, "we found nothing to tie Karl Rove's comments . . . to the Klamath decision-making process," Inspector General Earl Devaney said in a letter to Kerry, the Massachusetts senator.

A major fish kill and other problems in the drought-plagued region have "fueled the flames of suspicion and distrust," Devaney wrote in the letter dated March 1 and released Friday by the Interior Department.

"However, we conclude that the [Interior] Department conducted itself in keeping with the administrative process, that the science and information utilized supported the department's decisions, and that no political pressure was perceived by any of the key participants," Devaney's letter said.

The White House called the report a vindication of its approach to water management in the Klamath, a contentious issue that has spurred litigation and hard feelings. In a statement, Kerry said he accepts the inspector general's findings but still questions why a political operative was briefing senior Interior officials about complex resource issues.Kerry sought the inquiry last year, following a report in The Wall Street Journal that Rove had briefed top managers at the Interior Department in January 2002 about the Klamath and other Western issues. Rove's briefing followed a trip by President Bush and Rove to Oregon, where Republican leaders had stressed the need to support their agricultural base by increasing water flow to nearby farms.

Three months after the meeting, administration officials increased the water supply to more than 200,000 acres of farmland in California and Oregon.

In September 2002, nearly 33,000 chinook salmon died in the Klamath River in northern California. The California Department of Fish and Game laid much of the blame on low water flows controlled by the federal government.

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