THE latest battle in the US West over water involves the charge that irrigators in eight Western states have been illegally ``spreading'' water to hundreds of thousands of unauthorized acres, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers.
There are 24 water projects in this region that were developed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec). Federal legislation in 1902 created the BuRec specifically to construct dams, canals, and other facilities to help ``green'' 17 Western states for farmers and ranchers.
``The history of the development of the West is in large part a history of water,'' says A. Reed Marbut, an Oregon state administrator who helps settle water disputes. Half of these 24 projects and about two-thirds of the acreage are in the Columbia River Basin states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Although BuRec officials agree with these recent charges, by the Interior Department's inspector general, of excessive water use, solving the problem is not as simple as turning off a spigot or charging the irrigators - the farmers and ranchers - more for the water they use.
At issue is what Mr. Marbut calls ``an intricate web of water law ... both complex and confusing.'' This web includes the ``doctrine of prior appropriation,'' which means users who first tapped into a supply have first rights to the water. The web also includes state water rights, protected under provisions of the 1902 legislation that created BuRec.
At a congressional hearing July 19, Rep. Michael Crapo (R) of Idaho warned of ``federal intrusion into Idaho's sovereignty over its water.'' He said: ``I am deeply concerned that the present administration and some in Congress are setting the stage for ignoring long-established statutory provisions concerning state water rights and state water contracts.''
The freshman lawmaker was speaking to the House Natural Resources subcommittee on oversight and investigations, hearing testimony on the ``water spreading'' problem.
Conservative Westerners like Mr. Crapo see the water issue as part of an overall effort by the Clinton administration to strengthen environmental protection through the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, wilderness legislation, wetlands policy, and the reform of grazing and mining law - all at a cost to resources-based industries on which many Western communities traditionally have relied.
Although such broad environmental reforms have been slow in coming, there does seem to be a critical mass of key political players favoring change. These include Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Commissioner of Reclamation Daniel Beard. Mr. Beard is a former top aide to Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who is chairman of the powerful House Committee on Natural Resources.
For nearly 20 years Congressman Miller has led the fight to modernize and reform federal water law, which goes back to the 1902 act that was designed to support small farmers. Today, though, farming is done on a much larger scale.
Part of the problem reformers face is BuRec's own history. ``Most of the water-spreading ... is because the Bureau has not only looked the other way in many cases, but has actively encouraged water spreading ... over the past 30 to 50 years,'' says Sherl Chapman, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, which represents 180 irrigation districts and canal companies.
The result may have been an expansion of pastures and crop lands, critics say, but the environmental results of excessive water diversions have been disastrous, they add. ``Salmon and steelhead runs of the Pacific Northwest are in terrible trouble, with over 200 species already extinct and over 200 more in danger of extinction,'' said Katherine Ransel, co-director of the environmental group American Rivers' regional office in Seattle. ``And it is not just the salmon that are in trouble. It is all aquatic organisms and systems.''
Others point to the polluting impact of irrigation runoff on surface and ground water. ``Irrigation has created water-quality problems in many parts of the West because return flows carry salts, heavy metals, and other contaminants,'' says Reed Benson, a former Environmental Protection Agency lawyer who now watchdogs the Bureau of Reclamation's Umatilla Basin Project for the environmental group WaterWatch of Oregon.
Native Americans, too, have a keen interest in the impact commercial irrigation has had on streams and rivers providing habitat to migrating fish. ``Fish get only the polluted leftovers, and often have no river in which to live,'' said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon. ``Water spreading and other violations of federal water laws have devastated our culture, religion, and economy.''
Citing the Treaty of 1855 between Indians and the federal government, Mr. Minthorn said: ``After nearly 140 years, we are still waiting for our treaty water rights to be honored in any of these watersheds.'' The treaty gave the US title to 6.4 million acres in Oregon and Washington, while Indians supposedly retained water and fishing rights.
The BuRec has taken initial steps toward solving the water spreading problem. Earlier this year, commissioner Beard set up a task force including irrigators, environmentalists, Native Americans, and state water officials to begin to a look at the big picture. Everyone involved acknowledges that a problem this complicated and this long in the making will take some time to unravel.
Long-entrenched economic and political interests are ready for a legal fight, says Sherl Chapman of the Idaho Water Users Association.
But Commissioner Beard is just as adamant that change will occur. Speaking to water-spreading task force members earlier this year he said, ``You should know that there is no doubt ... that we have to comply with the law, that we will comply with the [water-spreading] law, and that we will solve this problem one way or the other.''