Behind Standoff on Water Rights: A Century of Policy and Habit

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1993 | Go to article overview

Behind Standoff on Water Rights: A Century of Policy and Habit


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE battle to reform federal range land has come down to that most precious commodity in the arid West: water.

The administration wants to overturn nearly a century of government policy and practice by imposing conservation and environmentally sensitive water management. Ranchers, farmers, and other traditional water users, fearful that water control will shift from state governments and local interests to environmental ideologues and Washington bureaucrats, are resisting mightily.

Now there is a political standoff. The House has passed a compromise version of administration-proposed legislation to raise grazing fees, which also includes firmer federal control over water rights. But a bipartisan group of Western lawmakers has filibustered it in the Senate.

During the Reagan years, Interior Secretary James Watt allowed ranchers leasing federal lands to control water rights on property that, in theory, at least, belonged to all Americans. Bruce Babbitt, the present secretary, wants to reverse the policy, but he says the range-land reforms he seeks will be "pursuant to state law" regarding water rights.

His assurances last week were enough to assuage some opponents, including Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D). But Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, who has led Senate opposition, calls it "a smoke screen" to hide the intent of the proposal.

When it comes to controlling water management in the West, traditionalists may have good reason to be wary of Mr. Babbitt.

As Arizona governor, he was credited with hammering out compromises on water. But as League of Conservation Voters head, he was critical of federal water policy - particularly the Bureau of Reclamation, which has built and operated dams, canals, and other Western water projects since it was created in 1902.

Speaking to a group at the University of Colorado years ago, Babbitt said of the Bureau of Reclamation: "Its practices have been the most environmentally destructive of all the public-land agencies." It "remains locked in a tight embrace with the apparatchiks of Western agriculture, who are dedicated to protecting the political power of their organizations...."

MORE recently, Babbitt blasted "a time-honored Western tradition . …

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