Change at the top is just a beginning
Marc Reisner's recent story explained that some things have changed dramatically at the Bureau of Reclamation. Commissioner Dan Beard has little in common with his dam-building predecessors such as Floyd Dominy. Reisner portrayed Beard - accurately, I think - as someone firmly committed to making Reclamation more responsible to the environment and the American public.
On many issues, however, Beard's Reclamation has had a tough time making big changes. It has suspended efforts to write rules addressing "water spreading," the illegal use of federal project water (HCN, 10/31/94). It has revised its draft water conservation guidelines to be more friendly to irrigators. And it has delayed Glen Canyon Dam operational changes which could restore the eroding beaches of the Colorado River (HCN, 3/20/95).
It's hard to blame Beard for these retreats. The entire Interior Department has been immobilized by the recent changes in Congress and by the "War on the West" rhetoric spouted by resource user groups. Beard, like others at Interior who would change the way we manage public resources, has been handcuffed by politics. In fact, Beard may have the toughest reform job of all.
Water, the resource his agency manages, is mostly controlled by state laws. In every Western state and at the federal level, the politics of water are dominated by economic user groups. Irrigators, cities, ranchers and hydropower interests call the shots. Environmental groups and recreational river users haven't been a major force, except in a few cases. We're beginning to change that, but we've got a long way to go.
We now must change the political environment in which the Bureau operates. We need broader and stronger support for instream uses of water, so that the Bureau must serve environmental, tribal and recreational interests as well as irrigation and hydropower. Only then can we expect Reclamation to manage water for the benefit of the public and the rivers of the West.
Reed D. Benson
The writer is reclamation issues director of WaterWatch.