100 Years Later, U.S. Reclamation Bureau Stuck in 19th Century

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New Alliance Wants Reforms to Prevent Conflicts Like Klamath Water Wars

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (June 12, 2002) -- On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, critics charged the federal water agency with failing to meet new challenges or to learn from a century of costly mistakes. A new group, the Western Water Alliance, called for fundamental reform of federal water policies to meet 21st Century environmental, economic and community needs.

The alliance presented its demands as federal water managers prepared to stage a centennial celebration on June 17 at the massive Hoover Dam on the Colorado River on the California-Arizona border. The alliance said the event underscores how the bureau is out of touch.

"For decades, the Colorado ran dry before it reached the Gulf of California below Hoover Dam," said Barry Nelson, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The bureau has dewatered many other significant Western rivers like the Rio Grande and San Joaquin. Nothing demonstrates its antiquated policies more dramatically than the fact that the Colorado River, where the bureau plans to celebrate, often no longer flows to the sea."

The Bureau of Reclamation was created shortly after Congress passed the Reclamation Act in 1902, when the West was considered under-populated and agriculture was viewed as the engine of economic growth. The bureau embarked upon a program of huge taxpayer-subsidized dam and diversion projects to irrigate croplands and attract more people to the region.

Today, the West is one of the country's fastest growing areas with an economy that is driven by technology, recreation, financial and other service industries. Alliance leaders say the bureau has failed to adjust to this new reality and that the bureau must be reformed to better protect the environment, to ensure that projects make economic sense, and to protect the rights of Native Americans and other Western communities whose livelihoods depend on abundant fisheries and healthy rivers.

"As the Bureau of Reclamation enters its second century, it's time to reform water policies that were put into place before the Wright brothers invented the airplane," said Steve Malloch, with Trout Unlimited. "Congress should review the performance of the bureau during the 20th century and enact long overdue, system-wide reforms."

"The bureau's dams and water diversions are a major reason why Klamath River salmon runs, once the third-biggest on the West Coast, have been nearly wiped out," said WaterWatch of Oregon's Bob Hunter. "And the Klamath basin is not unusual. The bureau has been a big factor in the crash of native fish populations across the West."

Critics said it's time for a comprehensive review of bureau operations. "President Teddy Roosevelt had the foresight to insist on periodic public review of the operation of non-federal hydroelectric projects so future generations could consider alternatives," said Katherine Ransel, senior counsel with American Rivers. "The federal government ought to be held to at least as high a standard as the operators of private and municipal water projects."

The Western Water Alliance also noted that the bureau was formed 70 years before passage of the federal Clean Water Act. "Selenium, pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and thermal pollution from bureau projects around the West degrade water quality and threaten drinking water and wildlife," said Denise Fort, of the University of New Mexico School of Law. "It's time for agricultural users to clean up their pollution."

Moreover, alliance members said the bureau's practices don't make economic sense. "Water conservation is generally cheaper than new water development," noted Dana Haasz of Pacific Institute, "yet bureau subsidies and water pricing policies discourage conservation and water transfers that could avoid expensive and destructive project works." And, added Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense, "after a century of waste, the bureau remains a roadblock to reforming a system that will never quench special interests' thirst for valuable water because we charge pennies on the dollar. The real losers are everyone else -- urban areas, family farmers and the environment."

The alliance faulted the bureau for ignoring the needs and legal rights of Native American communities. "The bureau has caused the collapse of salmon and other native fish species on almost every Western river, abrogating tribal fishing treaty rights and with no consideration of cultures that have depended on fishing for their livelihoods for millennia," said John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund. And the bureau has let down family farmers as well, NRDC's Nelson argued. "It was supposed to strengthen rural communities but instead, it has created a nearly feudal system of enriched absentee landlords and impoverished local communities, aptly demonstrated by the Westlands Water District in California."

The Western Water Alliance is dedicated to the promotion of sustainable and just water policies. Its members include representatives from American Rivers, Clean Water Network, Defenders of Wildlife, the Kenney Foundation, the Native American Rights Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Institute, Pacific Rivers Council, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Trout Unlimited, as well as other individuals and organizations across the West.

Case studies in the Bureau of Reclamation's mismanagement are available on the website of the Western Water Alliance, in PDF format (http://www.westernwateralliance.org/dwnld/case_studies.pdf). For information about the Western Water Alliance, visit their homepage at http://www.westernwateralliance.org.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.