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Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Water for the taking.

The Bureau of Reclamation has a new role in the West, and it's high time the agency focused on management, not development, concludes an Interior Department audit on the unauthorized diversion of water.

The July 1994 audit, Irrigation of Ineligible lands, Bureau of Reclamation, said that when farmers took more water than they were entitled to between 1984 and 1992, American taxpayers were cheated out of as much as $46 million. The farmers depleted rivers by taking water to irrigate 154,000 acres, mostly in Washington and Oregon.

The audit recapitulates what the Bureau of Reclamation said it would do in 1987: "The Bureau concluded that the era of constructing large, federally financed water projects was coming to a close, future opportunities for developing additional water supplies were extremely limited, and the conservation of water and protection of the environment had become major public concerns."

To complete the agency's transition from dam-building to management and conservation, the audit said, the Bureau must rein in the irrigators and make them relinquish the water they have used for years.

The audit report No. 94-I-930 is available from the Assistant Inspector General for Administration, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. 20240.