- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

The farm bill that became law yesterday included $200 million to supply water to two Nevada lakes but the money could not be used to buy the water that preliminary studies showed was necessary to save one of them from the brink of death.

Money for the lake is part of $17.1 billion in conservation programs in the farm measure, which could cost $190 billion over the next decade. Despite objections raised by key farm-state Republicans who voted against final passage, President Bush signed the bill into law.

"It's not a perfect bill, I know that. But you know, no bill ever is," he said.

The law increased farm spending $82 billion over the next decade and reversed a trend of reducing subsidies after the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act. It re-established some of the subsidies eliminated in that law and vastly increased others.

Negotiations to work out differences between the House and Senate versions produced some strange compromises to gain approval of lawmakers from non-farm states including the $200 million for the Nevada lakes.

In the initial bill, Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat and assistant majority leader, had proposed a $1 billion, seven-state water-conservation program. But Republican lawmakers, including key members of the House negotiating team, opposed that, arguing it would give the federal government too much power over state water.

Instead, they compromised on a $200 million pilot program for two lakes Pyramid and Walker in Nevada that had been receding. But the compromise would not let the federal government buy or lease water.

Officials say they can help water levels by getting rid of non-native plants that use much water, by making irrigation more efficient and by deepening river channels.

But because the bill won't allow the federal government to buy water, the water level of the lakes cannot be raised, according to preliminary findings of an environmental-impact statement by the Bureau of Land Management.

"Even with all of those improvements, we would still have to buy or lease at least some water rights," said John Singlaub at the bureau.

Pyramid Lake is in the middle of a reclamation project, but the water level in Walker Lake, about 80 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe, has fallen 134 feet since 1882.

Less water means a higher salt content, harmful to two species of lake fish the tuichub and the lahontan cutthroat trout and the migratory patterns of birds that feed on the fish.

Nevada officials and environmental groups called the lakes natural treasures that deserve protection, and an environmental aide to Mr. Reid said the conservation money in the farm bill was the right place to attach the funding.

She also said a guaranteed $12 million per year elsewhere in the bill could be used to buy extra water for the lakes.

Even with the restrictions, Republicans said, the deal amounted to pork for an important lawmaker.

"Nevada got a sweet deal, a couple hundred million dollars to go to a specific area in Nevada," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican. "That is the name of the game around here. At least we saved water rights. Water rights cannot be bought, nor should they be owned, by the federal government."

The issue, and other disputes from the farm bill, seem to be spilling into other legislation. Congressional Quarterly reported that the water dispute might seep into the energy and water appropriations bill.

Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, yesterday promised "extreme measures" on the Senate floor to ensure that the supplemental appropriations committee included a drought assistance program cut from the farm bill in conference.

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