Water Policy Overhaul

THE long-simmering debate over water policies and rights in the American West is heating up.

Californians have endured six years of drought, and although there are some signs the climatic crisis may be easing, it is clear to everyone concerned that the way scarce water is obtained and allocated must be revised. Events both natural and political seem likely to impel change in the course of Western water policy.

Congress recently dipped its toes into the water crisis but promptly drew back. HR 429, the omnibus water bill passed by the House and approved by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, seems headed toward enactment. At best, it indirectly addresses the festering debate among farmers, water-starved metropolitan areas, and environmentalists. The bill is a weak vessel for carrying the hopes of contending interests.

At the state level, California Gov. Pete Wilson on April 6 presented proposals aimed at ending what he called the "water wars" between his state's agricultural, environmental, and urban sectors. Change would come slowly, but perhaps inexorably, under his 18-year plan. It is designed to meet the challenges of an expected state population growth from today's 30 million to some 41 million by 2010.

Governor Wilson suggests, among other things, that the federal government relinquish the Central Valley Project (CVP), a vast network of waterways draining the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta. The idea, apparently, is that the state would allocate CVP water more fairly and efficiently than the US Bureau of Reclamation.

California is not alone in its dependency on the dams and aqueducts built in the West over many years by the Bureau of Reclamation. They provide water, flood control, and electricity for much of the far West and Southwest. Over the decades many problems have developed as population, agriculture, and industry grew and increased demand for water. The latest claim on the resource is preservation of the environment, including wildlife.

In Congress, a group of relatively new lawmakers, including Democrats Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Rep. George Miller of California, are breaking through regional barriers, recognizing the impact of what happens in the West on the rest of the country. Also, Western farmers are beginning to see the folly of trying to hang onto an agricultural tradition that is becoming less efficient even as it creates problems for other sectors.

Now is the right time to put Western water needs and costs in better balance. Contracts for water use issued years ago are coming up for renewal. Because farmers have to plan long-range, these contracts assure access to the water for 40 years.

There is an opportunity at hand for all parties, from the federal government to city residents - who do, of course, have the power of the ballot - to strike a better balance in the competition for this essential resource.

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