A crackdown against illegal use of federal water from dams in the West won't take place anytime soon (HCN, 10/31/94). That's because a long-awaited plan for curbing abuses is being shelved by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
pressure from farm irrigators, the BuRec has begun work on what
some observers predict will be a new, and far less environmentally
The dead plan, crafted by a task
force appointed by BuRec Commissioner Dan Beard, called for an end
to an abuse known as "water spreading' - the unauthorized use of
federal water - according to a draft released in June. A final plan
was due in October, but now it appears the problem won't be
resolved until sometime next year, if then.
Water spreading refers to the practice among
some irrigators of using water on lands not approved by the BuRec.
The practice violates contracts that spell out exactly when, where
and how much water irrigators can get. Nevertheless, irrigators
have been spreading water for years, if not decades, with at least
tacit approval from BuRec officials.
set up the task force a year ago, he told its members from the
irrigation, environmental and Native American communities that
water spreading had to stop because federal law clearly forbids it.
He was the first BuRec commissioner to take such a strong stand.
"There are no ifs, ands or buts," he said then.
In an interview Nov. 16, he said he hasn't backed off from that
principal, but nonetheless everything is on hold: "We have a bigger
job than I thought."
One unanticipated obstacle,
Beard says, is insufficient information. The government has studied
illegal water use for more than a decade, most recently last
summer. In a report from the Interior Department's Office of
Inspector General, the investigation concluded that water spreading
has cost the government as much as $46 million since 1984, with up
to 154,000 acres in eight Western states getting water without
paying for it. Beard says that report was light on specifics,
especially pertaining to individual parcels of
A second reason for delay is lack of
consensus, Beard says. The draft plan enjoyed support among
environmentalists but faced vehement opposition from irrigators,
especially those who may have been guilty of illegal use.
"I was hoping it was possible to reach some kind
of consensus," Beard says. "Clearly, that was not possible. Now,
we're going to try something else."
he hasn't decided what he means by "something else," but
environmentalists contend he's looking for a solution that will be
more palatable to irrigators.
"You can see they
are trying to legalize water spreading en masse," says Reed Benson,
an attorney with an Oregon environmental group, WaterWatch, that
was the first to make an issue of water
Instead, Benson says, the BuRec should
enforce its contracts with irrigators and return the "stolen" water
to rivers where it can benefit fish. In some instances, most
notably Oregon's Umatilla River, water spreading has undermined
efforts to restore damaged salmon runs. There, a $100 million
federal salmon recovery project has added relatively little water
to the river; instead, almost all of it has been sucked up by water
spreaders, according to the BuRec.
But Beard says
people shouldn't look at enforcement of water laws as a means to
help salmon. Instream flow, he says, "is a matter for state law to
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