Western governors rethink water policies as federal help wanes

Potential American Indian water claims in Arizona amount to about 10 times more than the total average water supply for the whole state. It's just one, perhaps extreme, example of the controversy surrounding Western water development, but it's typical of the complexity of issues Western leaders will face as Western growth strains water limits.

The Western consensus on those limits and an approach to handling them was laid out here last week in a two-year water-policy study released at the annual meeting of the Western Governors' Association (WGA).

Although it largely reiterates the traditional problems of financing water projects and of the long-debated roles of federal and state jurisdictions, the report also suggests a new willingness by the states to take on new projects without federal aid. Further, the report reflects a new recognition of the legitimacy of Indian water claims and the jurisdiction over ground water.

''You used to be able to assume automatic support if (a congressional politician was) from the West. That has changed with budget pressures, . . . and there's less support for water development,'' explains Jim Maddy, executive director of the WGA.

''New Challenge New Direction: The Water Policy Report of the Western Governors' Association'' was undertaken to update the ''case for water development with 1984 statistics and 1984 political realities,'' he says. He says he hopes that it will help correct the perception in the Midwest and East that the West is ''greedy'' on the water issue.

Water development in the West has long been criticized by the Midwest and East as pork-barrel politicking. And with the federal budget deficit at crisis proportions, support has waned even for water projects already started with promises of federal financing.

But the WGA report shows that states are recognizing that the federal role is diminishing, and are ''looking at picking up a bigger share of the expense'' of water projects, says Craig Bell, executive director of the Western States Water Council.

But Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D) also notes the report's findings on the justification for federal support. When federal water expenditures for each region of the country are tallied - including large amounts for pollution control, navigation projects, flood control, which benefit primarily the Midwest and East - spending has been equal in the North, South, and West, he says.

Further, only users of water for hydropower, irrigation, and municipal and industrial supplies - the principle purposes of Western water projects - are required to repay building costs. And tax revenues from those projects between 1973 and 1983 exceeded total federal expenditures for Western water projects by a ratio of 6 to 1, he says.

Governor Babbitt also emphasizes the need for the states to take a regional approach soon to the mounting disputes over jurisdiction of ground water, because ''federally determined regulation is unacceptable.''

President Reagan's New Federalism, he says, needs a new response from the states on the water issue. And the WGA's updated water policy is the first step, he suggests, in changing the federal and state partnership in water development.

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