THE latest battle in the US West over water involves the charge
that irrigators in eight Western states have been illegally
"spreading" water to hundreds of thousands of unauthorized acres,
at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers.
There are 24 water projects in this region that were developed
by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec). Federal
legislation in 1902 created the BuRec specifically to construct
dams, canals, and other facilities to help "green" 17 Western
states for farmers and ranchers.
"The history of the development of the West is in large part a
history of water," says A. Reed Marbut, an Oregon state
administrator who helps settle water disputes. Half of these 24
projects and about two-thirds of the acreage are in the Columbia
River Basin states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Although BuRec officials agree with these recent charges, by the
Interior Department's inspector general, of excessive water use,
solving the problem is not as simple as turning off a spigot or
charging the irrigators - the farmers and ranchers - more for the
water they use.
At issue is what Mr. Marbut calls "an intricate web of water
law ... both complex and confusing." This web includes the
"doctrine of prior appropriation," which means users who first
tapped into a supply have first rights to the water. The web also
includes state water rights, protected under provisions of the 1902
legislation that created BuRec.
At a congressional hearing July 19, Rep. Michael Crapo (R) of
Idaho warned of "federal intrusion into Idaho's sovereignty over
its water." He said: "I am deeply concerned that the present
administration and some in Congress are setting the stage for
ignoring long-established statutory provisions concerning state
water rights and state water contracts."
The freshman lawmaker was speaking to the House Natural
Resources subcommittee on oversight and investigations, hearing
testimony on the "water spreading" problem.
Conservative Westerners like Mr. Crapo see the water issue as
part of an overall effort by the Clinton administration to
strengthen environmental protection through the Endangered Species
Act, the Clean Water Act, wilderness legislation, wetlands policy,
and the reform of grazing and mining law - all at a cost to
resources-based industries on which many Western communities
traditionally have relied.
Although such broad environmental reforms have been slow in
coming, there does seem to be a critical mass of key political
players favoring change. These include Secretary of the Interior
Bruce Babbitt and Commissioner of Reclamation Daniel Beard. Mr.
Beard is a former top aide to Rep. George Miller (D) of California,
who is chairman of the powerful House Committee on Natural
For nearly 20 years Congressman Miller has led the fight to
modernize and reform federal water law, which goes back to the 1902
act that was designed to support small farmers. Today, though,
farming is done on a much larger scale. …