Soaking the states for water

There is irony in the report that Western US political and farming leaders are now prepared to accept a Reagan administration plan to share new water project costs with the federal government. Under the plan, the Western states would pay up to 35 percent of the costs of the projects. Only a few years back, when President Carter proposed letting the states pay 10 percent of the projects , the response from many of the same Western officials was a ringing rejection.

What has happened to make such construction cost-sharing suddenly palatable? Two things. A significant part of the general public has come to agree with Mr. Carter that large-scale water projects represent costly boondoggles, a view pushed by the former President when he came out against some 19 major water projects early in his administration. Second, add in the current federal budget problem, with those enormous deficits, and the pressures to refrain from massive new dams or other irrigation ventures becomes very attractive, even to an administration with a significant Western political base. So to get such projects built at all, developers and farmers now recognize that cost-sharing is essential.

What must now be asked, however, is whether the backlog of $50 billion worth of previously authorized water projects remains essential. Construction of Western water projects has been virtually halted since Mr. Carter's initial attack back in 1976. There can be no disputing that having ample water supplies is vital for farm, industrial, and consumer usage in the largely arid Western United States. But the question of whether such supplies are best met through huge new construction projects is still as valid as when asked by Mr. Carter. The potential supply of water through conservation and recycling, for example, remains significant, and such a course would be far cheaper in the long run.

The fact that the Western states and users now are willing to share construction costs is a step in the right direction. But before committing itself to specific projects, the administration should thoroughly study alternative solutions. In this time of budget austerity, especially, the expenditure of billions of dollars on unnecessary dams and canals would be unconscionable.

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