Washington — Environmentalists are trying to harness the tight-money tide in the budgetary affairs of Congress to "flood out" more than a dozen elaborate dam, lake, and canal projects.
Such water projects often are criticized as "pork" by environmentalists. But farmers and shippers who would benefit from them say they are economic necessities. And to congressmen, water projects have been considered valuable tools to show constituent service.
During the ongoing exercise in budget-balancing, water projects have remained uncut longer than such programs as food stamps, jobs-for-youth, and urban aid. Last week, a House committee turned down an attempt to divert water project money into park preservation.
But with austerity the continuing watchword now on Capitol Hill, congressmen are beginning to entertain proposals to cut water projects by $400 million to $1 billion. (Even a $1 billion cut would leave a sizable water project expenditure , since the original proposal in January was for $4.1 billion.)
If nothing else, a change of attitudes seems to be occurring in a three-year battle of priorities between the President and Congress. In 1977, President Carter threw Congress and contractors into turmoil with his "hit list" of 32 water projects. Mr. Carter won the praise of environmentalists who for many years had been fighting dam and river projects as wasteful and ecologically unsound.
Congressmen fought back, and a more moderate approach -- that preserved most of the 32 projects -- won out. Since then, advocacy of water projects has become quieter on the part of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and business interests.
"Now, at least, you get the feeling in Congress that the less said about water projects the better," says Ed Osann, coordinator of the Coalition for Water Projects Review, a group pushing for cost-effective water project planning. "The word still goes out when they need a solid lineup of support. And they get it. But they've got to be feeling vulnerable."
Still, Mr. Osann says, "belt-tightening on water projects doesn't mean starvation. It means skipping a second dessert." Unlike human-services programs , construction projects can be postponed without hurting the poor of society, Mr. Osann says. And even at $3 billion for the 1981 appropriation, water projects would be in progress in all 50 states.
But Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus reportedly feels strongly that construction schedules should not be disrupted or existing contracts broken. He recommended lighter cuts in his department's Bureau of Reclamation programs than in conservation and parks.
The water projects coalition has selected 18 undertakings that could be trimmed without either halting or eliminating them altogether. Among these are the Red River navigation project, channel improvements to the lower Mississippi, and the controversial Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway in Mississippi and Alabama -- a 232-mile canal linking the Tennessee River with the Gulf of Mexico.
Waterway users are formidible. President Carter has proposed cutting $930, 000 from the Tennessee-Tombigbee, but Deep South support at a recent congressional hearing indicated that a substantial cut in the project may be politically hazardous.
Arguments most often made against these water projects is that they benefit only a few contractors and developers, waste energy, and do not contribute to cleaner water. Moreover, opponents say, the final costs often are underestimated.
Typical of the type of water projects that environmentalists object to is the Stonewall Jackson dam in West Virginia. The Upper West Fork River Watershed Association has been fighting the dam since it was first proposed 45 years ago. This week, the association plans to file suit charging the Army Corps of Engineers with misrepresenting the true costs and benefits of the dam and with changing the project without seeking congressional approval.
"In this suit," says Fred Geldon, attorney for the watershed association, "we hope not only to stop this fiscally irresponsible project, but to force the corps to adhere to these laws [dealing with water projects and its own regulations on a national level]."