BuRec to allow water thefts to continue

  • Dan Beard, fourth from the lead, "makes a train" in the Little Colorado

    Rob Elliott

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.

Under pressure from farm irrigators, the BuRec has begun work on what some observers predict will be a new, and far less environmentally friendly, plan.

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.

When Beard 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 land.

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."

Beard says 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 spreading.

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 determine."

The writer works in Portland, Oregon.

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