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Farms-to-Fish Water Conservation Amendment Moves Forward

by Faith Bremner
Gannett News Service, February 15(?), 2002

WASHINGTON -- Conservative western senators Tuesday failed to stop a federal effort to help states move water from farmers' fields back into streams and rivers for endangered fish.

In a 55-45 vote, the Senate supported a water conservation program sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The program, now an amendment to the massive farm bill under discussion on the Senate floor, would give $1 billion to a handful of states to lease and buy water rights from willing farmers, to increase water conservation and to restore fish habitat. Reid amended his proposal three times to try to appease Western Republican senators. But in the end, they all voted against him, saying his changes don't go far enough to protect states' sovereignty over their water rights.

Reid's final version allows only the states of Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Maine to participate.

"Sen. Reid addressed every substantive concern that his western colleagues raised," said Scott Faber, an attorney with Environmental Defense, an advocacy group.

"To block this program now would only be an effort to kowtow to the far right fringe of the Republican Party."

If it survives a Senate-House conference committee, the program would be the federal government's biggest effort yet to help states acquire water from farmers for fish, Faber said. The federal government, here and there, has given states money to acquire water rights, but it has never been enough, he said.

In the West, farmers own and control between 80 percent and 90 percent of all the fresh water that's used, environmental groups say.

Now for the first time, states will get substantial resources," Faber said.

Sen. Max Baucus of Montana was the only western Democrat and one of only four Democrats to side with the Republicans. Baucus is up for re-election this year in a state that is growing increasingly conservative. Nine Republicans, all from the Midwest and the East, voted with Reid.

Baucus spokesman Bill Lombardi said it would set a dangerous precedent for the state to accept federal money to lease or purchase water rights.

"It would be a slippery slope," Lombardi said. "This should remain a state issue."

Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bruce Farling said Montana has already accepted money from the federal government -- the Bonneville Power Administration -- to purchase water rights for fish in the Bitterroot River. Farling said he was surprised at Baucus' vote, saying the Democrat told the group's national directors he would support the measure.

Farling's group works to protect and restore wild and native trout species.

"In Montana, for every buck we send to Washington, D.C., we get $ 1.50 back," Farling said. "I don't understand why all of a sudden people are reluctant to take federal money.

"It's disappointing."

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, led the charge to stop Reid's water program. Originally, Reid's amendment would have let the U.S. Department of Agriculture buy and lease the water. That alarmed Western conservatives who are always on the alert for federal intrusions into state-controlled water rights. Reid changed the program so that only the states could lease and buy the water rights.

He narrowed the program so that only a handful of states -- including two eastern states that are trying to restore endangered Atlantic salmon -- could use it. Farmers in New Hampshire and Maine divert water from streams to irrigate blueberries and potatoes.

Those changes are not enough for Crapo, who still sees federal control lurking in the background. Some states may have to change their water laws in order to participate, he said.

"The states will be administering a federally directed program," Crapo said. "It's like sending out your agents to achieve the same objectives and directing them in how they're going to do it."

Faith Bremner
Farms-to-Fish Water Conservation Amendment Moves Forward
Gannett News Service, February 15(?), 2002

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