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Ill-Advised Water Giveaway

October 25, 2002

States have the legal right to their own water with one major exception: The federal government can keep the rights to water springing from federal lands -- Indian reservations, national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and the like -- if it is needed to serve those lands.

The Clinton administration applied the rule strictly, reserving the right to a maximum amount of water to protect the environment as needed. But now the Bush administration is backing away from tough enforcement of the rule, opening the way for the states to claim increasing control over water that should remain in federal jurisdiction. This is a mistake. Last year, the Department of the Interior abandoned a claim to Snake River water surrounding a wildlife refuge in Idaho. This fall, the administration indicated it would reduce its hold on the Gunnison River in Colorado even though national park officials said reservation of the full flow was needed to protect the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park downstream.

Now, the Bush administration says it will get by with considerably less water, freeing up supplies for urban areas. Environmental critics say there are other sources to meet demand without tapping the federal water. If the federal rights were transferred to the state, the water would not be available when needed for wildlife, fisheries and river bank vegetation.

If there's not enough water for the Colorado monument at some point, the government can buy water elsewhere, an Interior Department official said. What kind of logic is that -- give it away and then buy it back?

Fortunately, there is little immediate threat to federal waters in California, although there is a bitter dispute along the Klamath River on the California-Oregon border over the allocation of water to area farmers, a wildlife refuge, Indian reservations with treaty rights and the salmon fishery. The problem: not enough water.

In California, state, federal and municipal projects take much of the water arising from the national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal lands. Congress decreed that part of the federal Central Valley Project supply must go to protect the environment, although farmers bitterly disputed the amount of water taken for this purpose. Cal-Fed, a new state-federal water venture, establishes an environmental water account to safeguard waterfowl and fish.

But there is no guarantee the environment will be protected if the administration becomes too generous in giving away federal -- the people's -- water.

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