November 8, 2010

"Throughout the West, a flood of attacks on water rights"

By "Throughout the West, a flood of attacks on water rights"

Author: Brandon Middleton

My colleague Damien Schiff and I authored this op-ed, which ran last week in the Lahontan Valley News.  An excerpt:

More and more, however, government officials are sowing uncertainty by reneging on longstanding promises or taking a slippery approach to laws or contracts that water users have relied on for generations.

For example, is the Obama Administration suddenly downgrading how farms, ranches, and urban communities are treated by federal reclamation projects? Water agencies throughout the West are worried, after the Bureau of Reclamation told an irrigation district in Grant County, Washington, that its water fees will no longer purchase any rights in the facilities that those fees help finance.

Historically, local water agencies that contract with federal projects (such as the Central Valley Project in California) have received ownership interest, over time, in the reservoirs, canals and other infrastructure built on their dime. By backing away from this principle, federal officials send a disturbing message: Water contractors will be relegated to the role of tenants instead of partners in reclamation programs. It’s the feds who will call the shots—unilaterally and arbitrarily—on who gets water and how much.

The danger in giving unchecked control to federal bureaucrats can be seen in California’s San Joaquin Valley in recent years. In a controversial strategy to rescue a tiny fish—the Delta smelt—that is on the Endangered Species Act protected list, water for farms and cities was cut dramatically, fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres in one of the nation’s agricultural heartlands.

These cutbacks, by federal officials, started even before the new threat to water contractors’ property interests. But they show how water flows could be turned on or off, unpredictably, if local agencies are squeezed out of any ownership role in federal reclamation projects.

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