On Earth Day, water policy floods the ecodebate

From inadequate sewers to debates over who should pay 'Superfund' costs, water tops list of green concerns.

As thousands of Americans observe Earth Day today by cleaning beaches and restoring streams, water connects just about every major environmental challenge the country faces.

From once-pristine Lake Tahoe to the dammed and dredged Missouri River to hog-waste fish kills in the tidewater states to the drought-parched Northeast, water has become, as EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman puts it, the "biggest environmental issue that we face for the 21st century."

Mark Twain's witty adage about 19th-century development in the West Â- "whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting" Â- reflects today's battles over control and cost. Among these:

• The EPA says the nation is billions of dollars behind in the necessary upgrades to sewer and water systems.

• Communities argue over the new federal arsenic limits in drinking water.

• The Bush administration wants to make it easier for coal miners to slice off mountaintops, which critics say causes erosion that pollutes streams.

• The old debate over who should pay for the cleanup of water-fouling toxic "Superfund" sites Â- taxpayers or polluters Â- continues to rage in Washington.

• In Oregon's Klamath Basin, the administration is seeking to avoid the kind of fish vs. farmers vs. Indians battle that raged last summer.

BUT perhaps the most monumental water battles are with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the most powerful Â- and controversial Â- government agency impacting water. With the recent designation of this year's "most endangered rivers" by a conservation group, the Army Corps is working to improve its policies, as congressional critics bear down on this massive dam-building bureaucracy.

The Army Corps is a favorite of Congress for the things it builds and maintains to provide irrigation, power generation, flood control, recreational opportunities, and other projects boosting economies and lawmakers' standing with powerful constituents.

But budget hawks call many of the projects little more than congressional boondoggles; conservationists say the corps has helped destroy wetlands and other important ecosystem elements. Earlier this month, the conservation group American Rivers released its "Most Endangered Rivers" report. The Missouri topped the list, with its health "in sharp decline due to the operation of corps dams and reservoirs."

There are signs that the corps is getting the message. Last month, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, commander and chief engineer of the corps (on the job just 18 months), announced seven "Environmental Operating Principles." General Flowers pledges to "proactively consider environmental consequences of corps programs and act accordingly in all appropriate circumstances." Noting that the science of watershed preservation and management has advanced recently, he says, "We've learned the hard way that those environmental costs must be recognized and dealt with." Some 20 percent of the corps' budget now goes to environmental restoration.

An agency with nearly 40,000 military and civilian employees that dates back to 1775 doesn't change overnight, and there's a growing movement in Congress to accelerate its reform.

"We cannot allow the Army Corps of Engineers to recklessly spend taxpayer funds on bloated and wasteful projects," says Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, a member of the recently formed bipartisan Army Corps Reform Caucus.

Bills in the House and Senate would include more independent reviews of corps' projects, require much greater protection of wildlife habitat, and give the public more access to information during the planning phases of big projects.

Critics note that it's not just the corps that needs changing, but its patrons, too, if the history of environmental damage to watersheds and wetlands is to be reversed.

"In some ways, we are using this caucus to clean up our own backyard," says Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon. "Congress has a history of providing miscues to the corps on projects."

This seems to be in line with what the Bush administration wants.

Recently, the politically appointed civilian head of the vorps (former Republican congressman Michael Parker of Mississippi, who had been a big booster of port-dredging and levee-building projects) spoke out against the administration's plan to cut the corps' budget by 10 percent. He was immediately fired.

THE administration stresses what Interior Secretary Gale Norton calls "new environmentalism" Â- individuals' efforts to conserve natural systems Â- over federal rules and regulations.

But they're also finding that environmental policy (like foreign policy) sometimes requires official engagement. In the wake of last summer's water battle here in southern Oregon, Ms. Norton has pledged to bring together farmers, conservationists, and Indian tribes to solve a tough issue involving what most experts say is an overallocation of water from the early 20th century.

"Water problems are essentially government problems," says David Kennedy, whose 40-year career included 15 years as director of the California Department of Water Resources in two Republican administrations.

But heightened awareness and activism mean more public participation on such problems as toxic-waste prevention and cleanup, endangered species protection, and aging sewer systems.

"Today, every water issue has citizen involvement," says Mr. Kennedy Â- so "we get better decisions today than we did 40 years ago."

Still, he says, the essential question remains: "Will there be enough water?"

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