New “Pork” for the Old West
Senate Prepares to Give Away Federal Water Projects
3/23/2000 — — Contacts: Steven Malloch, TU Counsel, 703-284-9415;
Maggie Lockwood, Director of Press Relations, 703-284-9425
March 22, 2000. Washington, D.C. In the long history of Western “pork barrel” federal water projects built to provide local benefits, the Senate is opening a new and dangerous chapter. Until now, when the federal government built the dams, reservoirs, and water systems of the West, it kept the ownership. Today, the Water and Power Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considered legislation that transfers complete ownership of three Western projects to local water districts.
“Water contractors have always gotten the water, now they want the hose,” testified Steven Malloch, Counsel for Trout Unlimited, in testimony before the Subcommittee on Water and Power. “Federal water projects have been a disaster for the health of Western rivers, and a staple of federal ‘pork barrel’ spending. Congress should not give away project ownership to further enrich water users at the expense of the taxpayer and already stressed western biological resources,” stated Mr. Malloch of Trout Unlimited.
Two of the projects reviewed at the hearing have pending acute Endangered Species Act issues. A dam and diversion on the lower Yellowstone River in Montana, trap over 500,000 fish per year, some candidates for listing under the ESA, into irrigation canals, and block spawning migrations for the pallid sturgeon, a listed species. The cost of fish passage and screens for this project is estimated at $5 to $10 million. In California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, the Sly Park project supplies water to sprawl development, jeopardizing several rare plants and the red-legged frog. Preserves for the plants and other recovery costs are estimated to cost $50 million.
“If the ESA problems are not solved before Congress directs the transfer of ownership, the cost of solutions will fall squarely on the taxpayers,” noted Mr. Malloch. “Taxpayers paid for most of the projects’ costs — water users pay only pennies on the dollar. Now, under these bills, either the taxpayer will also pay millions for the ESA problems caused by building these projects, or the problems don’t get solved.”
Under the 1902 law setting up the Reclamation program to help settle the west, more than half of the total cost of irrigation projects were written off, or shifted to electric power users. The other half is usually paid after a 10- year grace period, over 40 years at no-interest. Municipal water supply projects are heavily subsidized as well.
“Whoever thought this one up is a genius,” Mr. Malloch continued. “Unlike ordinary taxpayers, the federal government does not keep track of its assets. So this gift does not show up on the books – Congress can make a gift worth millions, but it is invisible to the budget hawks. The districts don’t even pay taxes on it.”
A 1991 government report disapproved of giving away federal water projects on these terms, and found that replacing California’s Sly Park project would have cost $90 to $110 million in 1989. (Interior Inspector General, Report No. 91-I-822, May 1991)
Add One, TU: Senate Prepares to Give Away Federal Water Projects, 3/22/00
Trout Unlimited believes that many of the 600 Bureau of Reclamation projects could be turned over to water users, but only after careful review of the consequences of transfer and crafting terms and conditions to protect and enhance recreation, fish and wildlife and other public interests. The third piece of legislation considered today is a reasonably balanced approach. However, because they were built before concern for the environment, most Reclamation projects need significant improvements in fish and wildlife management and facilities. The 105th Congress authorized transfer of ownership to three Reclamation projects. Dozens more transfer proposals are pending in Congress and at the Bureau of Reclamation. The legislation considered by the Senate today may be just the beginning of a flood of transfer proposals. Transfers on well crafted terms could be good for the environment, good for taxpayers and good for water users.
“Title transfer on the terms proposed today is just like the old water project welfare in its callous disregard for environmental consequences and the taxpayer. It is the new ‘pork’ for the old West,” stated Mr. Malloch.