First Carter, now Reagan find Hill slow to turn off water tap

Federal water policy -- an issue that has perennially seen presidents and lawmakers butting heads -- is becoming a point of contention between Ronald Reagan and Congress.

The President wants to cut back on "pork barrel" water projects, make water users pay more of the cost, turn over much decisionmaking to the states, and concentrate remaining federal control in the executive branch. Accurately perceiving that their traditional power in this area would be undercut by such moves, legislators (Republicans as well as Democrats) are warily resisting such moves.

Some environmentalists are pleased to find Mr. Reagan -- in the name of fiscal prudence -- initially moving toward water conservation. They had expected the Western President to be more sympathetic to big water users.

The situation is similar to the one Jimmy Carter found himself in shortly after becoming President in 1976. One of his first impolite moves was to announce a "hit list" of water projects he wanted to cancel. He had to back down on that, but he tried to the last to circumvent the typically pro-project bureaucracies and legislative committiees.In the face of congressional opposition, he did not have much success.

While federal water policy remained in a reform limbo, the nation's long-range serious water needs became more obvious: drought in the East, falling water tables and rising salinity in the West, aging and leaky city water systems , and inadequate harbor and port facilities worsened.

More pessimistic observers predict a 1980s water crisis in the United States as serious as the energy crisis of the 1970s.

It was pointed out in congressional hearings this week that there is a $50 billion backlog in water projects authorized but not begun. There are 52 such projects currently being reviewed by the federal Water Resources Council, with an average lag time of 10 years to completion.

The Reagan administration wants to abolish the Water Resources Council, the Office of Water Research and Technology, and the six federal river basin commissions. The President also would but US Army Corps of Engineers construction funds by $177 million, eliminate federal aid for state water planning, cancel some water projects, and delay others.

A new, much less independent Office of Water Policy would be established in the Interior Department. The economic benefits as well as costs of water projects would be more closely scrutinized under the Reagan plan. States would be given a greater say, but also would have to contribute substantially to the cost of water project construction.

Much of this goes against the congressional grain of advocating local projects to be paid for by all taxpayers.

"Nowhere has Congress's hold on allocational decisions endured longer than in the area of federal water projects," writes Princeton Universtiy political scientist R. Douglas Arnold in "The New Congress," a study recently published by the American Enterprise Institute. "Congress has naturally retained control of such programs because they offer such immense opportunity for taking credit and so few for receiving blame."

The attitude may be changing, however.

Looking over the history of federal water policy, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York calls it "a chaotic and idiosyncratic system . . . more responsive to the vagaries of seniority in the US Congress than anything else."

Many of the old "water barons" of Capitol Hill who ruled water resource committiees have been replaced by more environmentally aware and reform-minded lawmakers.

Still, there is strong bipartisan resistance to the Reagan proposals.

Bills in the House and Senate would establish a national board of water policy accountable to Congress as well as to the president.Both versions would include an independent chairman appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate as well as an advisory committee of state representatives. the House proposal would add board members nominated by House and Senate.

"I believe it is essential that Congress be involved in the development of national water policy," said Sen. James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate water resources subcommittee.

Senators Moynihan and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico have proposed state block grants for water resources, an idea the Reagan administration opposes. Their bill also would leave to Congress the setting of funding levels, selecting regional water projects, and deciding water disputes between states.

Concerned about what is best for the country as a whole, some environmentalists are wary of moving toward enhanced states' rights in deciding water policy.

At the same time, they view hopefull early administration moves. The President decided not to reverse a Carter administration decision to protect certain wild rivers in California. Interior Department officials say some of the 52 pending water projects probably will not meet new stiffer cost-benefit analyses. Corporate agribusiness in the West have been told they will have to pay more for federally subsidized irrigation.

"Some of what we've been seeing has been surprising," says an aide to Rep. George Miller (D) of California, a liberal who has been pushing hard for water reform. "Water policy may, in fact, be one of those places where the rhetoric sounds conservative but the action is not displeasing to environmentalists or liberals."

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