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New group forms to plug leaks in US water-management policy

For two decades, the United States has lacked a widely accepted water policy. Instead, water issues have been a continuing source of political conflict. Some experts warn that unless corrective steps are taken, the nation could face a series of water crises in coming years that would make the energy shocks of the 1970s seem mild in comparison.

Now, a diverse and powerful group of politicians and private organizations has formed the non-proft National Water Alliance (NWA) in an attempt to forge a new consensus on water.

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Capitol Hill veterans backing the new group include: Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona; Sen. David F. Durenberger (R) of Minnesota; Rep. Robert A. Roe (D) of New Jersey; Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas; Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York; Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D) of Washington; and Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R) of Arkansas.

''Water is simply too precious to leave to sectionalism and politics. We hope to transcend that, to bridge the differences between the various parties and find an underlying commonality,'' Senator DeConcini says.

The group has already garnered financial support from the likes of American Telephone & Telegraph Company, the mining company ASARCO Inc., the construction firm Bechtel Group Inc., the Coca-Cola Company, Greyhound Corporation, 3M Company, and Beneficial Corporation. A diverse group of unions, nonprofit organizations, and trade associations have also joined, ranging from the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department to the Wilderness Society.

These various organizations are interested because water, while frequently taken for granted, is an essential resource. According to the Minneapolis-based Freshwater Foundation, The nation's water use has grown to a record high average of 450 billion gallons per day. Americans use 83 gallons per person per day in their homes, but 90 percent of US water is used in agriculture and industry. To produce a typical fast-food meal of a hamburger, french fries, and a soft drink requires more than 1,500 gallons of water. To manufacture an average car consumes 100,000 gallons, while 30,000 gallons of additional water are needed to supply it with tires.

Until 1960, the US had a generally accepted water policy, explains Henry Caulfield, a political science professor at Colorado State University and one of the first social scientists to begin studying water issues. This policy, he says , was river basin development: essentially building dams to impound water for irrigation, electricity, and flood control.

Water development, almost exclusively paid for by the federal government, was part of a comfortable political pork-barrel system. Politicians in the West and Southwest won support for these large projects, which created jobs for their constituents, in return for backing harbor and highway construction projects and similar federal expenditures in other parts of the country.

With the rise of the environmental movement and a period of slow economic growth and high inflation, this consensus began to break down. But the severe drought in the late 1970s in the western US, combined with more recent water shortages in New York and New Jersey, increased the realization that water cannot be taken for granted. And costly efforts to return the nation's lakes and streams to the ''fishable, swimmable'' condition mandated by law is heightening consciousness that use of the nation's watercourses as both sewers and water supplies is a questionable and expensive proposition.

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''Maybe this group can come up with the elements of a new national consensus, '' Professor Caulfield says.

Already DeConcini and his new water allies in Congress have been instrumental in appropriating more than $200,000 to fund a Council on Environmental Quality study on the feasibility of establishing a National Water Research Institute to help provide the water-related information that experts agree is lacking. The study also would examine the feasibility of setting up a Water Information Clearinghouse to make information that exists more accessible to scientists, policy makers, and the public. And the NWA's first official action has been to sponsor a series of seminars to provide input into this study.

Joseph P. Rossillon, president of the Freshwater Foundation, says his group ''concluded in the early 1970s that we need to set clear priorities in the water area. This is the first group to come along since then that is saying the same thing. We'll support them, at least long enough to see if they're any good. I don't think the alliance has a philosophy yet, except that we have to do something better. We're trying to help them focus in on the issues.''

But others are wary of the new group. Says one prominent water scientist, ''The question I have not yet answered to my satisfaction is, 'Why has this organization been formed?' ''

And an environmentalist who participated in one of the NWA seminars questions whether the group may really be trying to protect past water-development policies: ''They would have more credibility if they had some of the younger, more progressive members of Congress involved. Also, they have kept the cost of joining very high, so they need to subsidize the participation of public interest groups.'' (Gaylord Nelson of the Wilderness Society has recently joined NWA's board.)

While outlines of possible water policies that NWA might support are necessarily vague, there are some predictable elements:

* Water costs must rise substantially. Because of the legacy of federal subsidization of water development, water in the US is significantly undervalued and so is used wastefully. However, rapidly raising water costs in industry and agriculture will be highly inflationary.

* State and local governments will have to pay a higher proportion of the cost of water projects in the future. The necessity for a cost-sharing formula of some sort is generally acknowledged.

* In the past, three quarters of federal funding for water development has gone to the West and the South, mostly for new construction. But a number of Eastern water systems are seriously deteriorated. A greater proportion of federal support will go to these repair and maintenance problems.

* Although President Carter was widely attacked within water development circles for emphasizing ''nonstructural'' approaches to water management, the potential for increasing water supplies by more sophisticated management has been proven and is considered an essential part of any solution.