Plug up that leaky water bill

It would be difficult to imagine a piece of legislation filled with more holes than the Water Resources Development Act of 1980, which is currently being debated in the House. Not only is it chock-full of ill-conceived and politically motivated bridge-building, flood-control, and other water projects certainly not worth the some $4 billion they would cost American taxpayers. The traditional "pork barrel" legislation, as reported out by the House Public Works Committee, would effectively sink the water policy reforms President Carter has been trying to get implemented since 1978.

The key elements that ought to be included in federal water policy -- emphasis on water conservation, cost accounting, environmental impact studies, a search for alternatives to dam and bridge construction -- are sadly missing in the current legislation. Moreover, it ignores the Carter administration's proposals to give states a bigger voice in shaping water projects and a bigger share of the costs of constructing them. It would also enlarge the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers by allowing it, for the first time, to build local water treatment plants.

House Speaker O'Neill is right in warning that dwindling water supplies in the West and lack of attention to the water needs of older cities in the East and Midwest are pointing the nation toward a national water crisis "25 or 30 years down the line." Congress ought to take action now to forestall it. But the bill before the House hardly offers the kind of forward-looking approach needed and called for by President Carter in his outline of a new national water policy.

One of the leading opponents of the bill, Representative Robert Edgar of Pennsylvania, has proposed 184 amendments aimed at whittling away many of the more notorious pet projects of congressmen, some of whom openly concede they support a project not because of the benefits that would accrue to an area but because influential business, shipping, or other interests in their district stand to profit from it. Among the key amendments are those that would establish a broad policy requiring all projects to include incentives for water conservation, wildlife and environmental impact studies, a fixed ceiling on spending, and a check of cost-benefit ratios to ensure the cost of a project does not exceed its benefits, as is the case with a number of the projects in the current bill.

The Carter administration is objecting to 125 of the projects on Congress's shopping list, and the President should not hestitate to follow through on his pledge to veto the bill unless drastic alterations are made. The Senate has yet to take up the matter. There is still plenty of time for both houses to show they have the courage to drop politics-as-usual and focus instead on structuring a policy that will hold water for years to come.

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