Western lawmakers say feds should leave water issues to the states

STATELINE -- Western states' lawmakers expressed concern Tuesday about growing federal intervention in water issues.

But an Interior Department official attending the Council of State Governments-West annual meeting at Lake Tahoe said they will find the Bush administration's stand on the issue much more to their liking.

"Federal water policy is chaotic at best -- trying to serve too many masters," said Dell Raybould, a member of Idaho's House of Representatives.

"There is a growing disregard for the fact that water allocation and management is vested in the states," he said.

He was joined by Paul Cleary of the Oregon Department of Water Resources who said a prime example of federal intervention is the problems faced by farmers in the Klamath area last year when federal authorities ordered irrigation to 180,000 acres of farm land cut off because of drought.

Cleary said agriculture was sacrificed to the needs of other users and one group shouldn't have to bear the entire burden when water is short.

"All interests should share the shortages in bad years and the benefits in wet years," he said. "No interest should be zeroed out as was done in 2001."

Arizona Sen. Herb Guenther said water issues have always been contentious, but the situation is aggravated "when you have a new, aggressive interest that wants to share those interests." He and others pointed to the growing interest of Native American tribes in water rights and the growing environmental and recreational demands on limited water resources across the West.

He said those interests combined with federal intervention effectively strip decision-making from lawmakers, resulting in court battles "with the judicial system, the black tower, sitting there making the decisions."

He said the federal environmental policy act, Clean Water Act and other environmental laws have been reinterpreted by environmental advocates in ways their original sponsors wouldn't recognize.

He said those interpretations have removed all flexibility from federal rules, preventing states from dealing with water issues "with common sense and reason."

"We're left to the justices and there isn't a justice around that has a clue," he said. "So we will be saddled with a 'letter of the law' interpretation of a law that was written 30 years ago."

Guenther told the Water Policy Committee, headed by Nevada Assemblyman Joe Dini, that until those laws are changed, "every time we take a new path, the judicial branch is going to tell us we're wrong."

But Kit Kimball of the Interior Department said she thinks states will see "a secretary who is much more supportive" in Bush appointee Gail Norton.

She told the committee meeting at Stateline that Norton knows litigation is not the answer and believes state governments should be given flexibility, "adaptive management, and that means trying things."

She said Interior Department's challenge is to get all the agencies in the department together so they can present the states with a cohesive and consistent water policy.

The Council of State Governments-West is holding a week-long series of meetings at Stateline.


What: Annual meeting of the Council of State Governments-West

When: through Friday

Where: Harvey's Lake Tahoe




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