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New group forms to plug leaks in US water-management policy

By David F. SalisburyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1984

La Jolla, Calif.

For two decades, the United States has lacked a widely accepted water policy. Instead, water issues have been a continuing source of political conflict. Some experts warn that unless corrective steps are taken, the nation could face a series of water crises in coming years that would make the energy shocks of the 1970s seem mild in comparison.

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Now, a diverse and powerful group of politicians and private organizations has formed the non-proft National Water Alliance (NWA) in an attempt to forge a new consensus on water.

Capitol Hill veterans backing the new group include: Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona; Sen. David F. Durenberger (R) of Minnesota; Rep. Robert A. Roe (D) of New Jersey; Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas; Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York; Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D) of Washington; and Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R) of Arkansas.

''Water is simply too precious to leave to sectionalism and politics. We hope to transcend that, to bridge the differences between the various parties and find an underlying commonality,'' Senator DeConcini says.

The group has already garnered financial support from the likes of American Telephone & Telegraph Company, the mining company ASARCO Inc., the construction firm Bechtel Group Inc., the Coca-Cola Company, Greyhound Corporation, 3M Company, and Beneficial Corporation. A diverse group of unions, nonprofit organizations, and trade associations have also joined, ranging from the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department to the Wilderness Society.

These various organizations are interested because water, while frequently taken for granted, is an essential resource. According to the Minneapolis-based Freshwater Foundation, The nation's water use has grown to a record high average of 450 billion gallons per day. Americans use 83 gallons per person per day in their homes, but 90 percent of US water is used in agriculture and industry. To produce a typical fast-food meal of a hamburger, french fries, and a soft drink requires more than 1,500 gallons of water. To manufacture an average car consumes 100,000 gallons, while 30,000 gallons of additional water are needed to supply it with tires.

Until 1960, the US had a generally accepted water policy, explains Henry Caulfield, a political science professor at Colorado State University and one of the first social scientists to begin studying water issues. This policy, he says , was river basin development: essentially building dams to impound water for irrigation, electricity, and flood control.

Water development, almost exclusively paid for by the federal government, was part of a comfortable political pork-barrel system. Politicians in the West and Southwest won support for these large projects, which created jobs for their constituents, in return for backing harbor and highway construction projects and similar federal expenditures in other parts of the country.

With the rise of the environmental movement and a period of slow economic growth and high inflation, this consensus began to break down. But the severe drought in the late 1970s in the western US, combined with more recent water shortages in New York and New Jersey, increased the realization that water cannot be taken for granted. And costly efforts to return the nation's lakes and streams to the ''fishable, swimmable'' condition mandated by law is heightening consciousness that use of the nation's watercourses as both sewers and water supplies is a questionable and expensive proposition.