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Water projects under Reagan: down, then up

Four years ago, Jimmy Carter rocked the political boat by announcing a "hit list" of federal water projects he wanted eliminated. Ronald Reagan -- a Westerner who understands well the importance of irrigation, flood control, hydropower, and water recreation in his home region -- is headed in a markedly different direction.

At first, there will be some initial "stretching out and retargeting" of proposed water project funding by Reagan as part of budget reductions. There will, perhaps, be a cut or two in these so-called "pork barrel" projects that will cause the odd squeal. But the prospects are for more water resource development under the new administration.

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The President's budget reform plan calls for deferring planned construction of "less critical" projects by 11 percent. These include recreation areas and some rural flood control and irrigation items that are to be built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Water and Power Resources Service (formerly the Bureau of Reclamation), and the Soil Conservation Service.

By delaying about 70 out of more than 300 water projects, the administration hopes to save $1.6 billion over the next five years. The second round of budget cuts may boost this to $2 billion.

At the same time, however, the administration is promising a devolution of authority over such projects to state and local officials, who traditionally have been their stronger advocates.

In recent years, congressional back-scratching on water projects has subsided somewhat as the environmental and economic worthiness of dams, recreational facilities, and the like increasingly has been called into question.

Under Republican control, however, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee not only is expected to be more conservative, but heavily dominated by Western senators. Two-thirds of the panel members are from west of the Mississippi.

On the House side, Interior Secretary James Watt recently testified that the Reagan White House is "committed to new projects." Mr. Watt also promised Western governors, with whom he met last week, that they would have a more say in future projects.

Along the same line, the Reagan administration probably will eliminate the Water Resources Council. President Carter had set up this body to act as another level of review over water projects, a move Congress had resisted. Principal review of such projects probably will revert to the agencies (such as the Corps of Engineers) which some critics feel act as advocates of more construction.

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There is likely to be little resistance to all of this on Capitol Hill. As one congressional source puts it, relations between the White House and Congress "could hardly get any worse," regarding water projects, than they were during the Carter days.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are expected to keep up the pressure for such water resource reform measures as user fees and cost-sharing by state and local governments.

The Ralph Nader group "Public Citizens' Congress Watch" estimates that eliminating nine Army Corps of Engineers projects (including such controversial ones as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and Central Arizona Project) would save nearly $6 billion through the 1980s.

"Unless there is real reform," says a Sierra Club lobbyist, "for every project you stop, 10 more come along."

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