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Dampening the Water Wars

Water is the most precious commodity in the American West. It has generated monumental public-works projects and monumental political battles. The current controversy in Oregon's Klamath Basin (see story, page 2) is a continuation of this epic drama.

This water tussle, like many in recent years, pits the interests of people - grain and potato farmers - against the environment. Specifically, in this drought-stricken year, it's either farmers or endangered fish that get the water. There's not enough to adequately supply both.

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In April, a federal district court decided in favor of the suckerfish and salmon, on the basis of the Endangered Species Act. The Bureau of Reclamation, which built the Klamath irrigation project nearly a century ago, closed the gates that divert water to the farmers.

Tension has built since, with farmers engaging in civil disobedience to break the gates and let some water into irrigation canals. Local police chose not to intervene. Property-rights groups are promoting lawsuits by the farmers.

But quieter methods offer more hope. This year's drought underscores the need to rethink water allocation not only in the Klamath region, but throughout the West. The economic viability of some types of aridland farming should be reexamined. Farmers long dependent on subsidized water from federal projects should practice strict water conservation. The region's thirsty cities have to conserve, too.

Federal environmental law makes it clear that human use can't simply trump nature's needs, as in the past. And that's not likely to change. Public support for environmental protection remains strong.

Managing the West's water demands a thoughtful balance, with agriculture, urban use, power generation, and, not least, the environment, given due attention.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor