Excess Water Use in West Kicks Up Dust Intricate System for Distributing Precious Water Resource Stirs Hot Political Debate

Article excerpt

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 Resources.

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. …

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