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Guideline for Congress

The Garrison Diversion Project has come a long way since the day in 1944 when Col. Lewis Pick of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and W. Glenn Sloan of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation met in an Omaha hotel to decide how they would divide up the Missouri River. “I mean to control the water of the Missouri River,” Pick said, pulling out plans for 22 dams and other facilities for flood control and navigation. Sloan wanted 90 dams and reservoirs to irrigate 4.7 million acres of farms and ranches on the upper plains.

Putting their minds and plans together, they came up with the Pick-Sloan Project, of which Reclamation’s Garrison Diversion Unit was to irrigate more than a million acres of North Dakota. The Garrison Unit survives in spite of 42 years of regional, national and international controversy concerning its scope, cost and environmental impact. But it falls far short of the grandiose plan that was envisioned by Pick and Sloan, and that is good news.

In 1984 a Reagan Administration review commission proposed a drastic scaling back of Garrison. The core of that proposal passed the House on Wednesday, 254 to 154, with the support of both project users and environmental groups--including the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation.

Garrison has been transformed into a worthy multiple-benefit project providing not just irrigation for farms but also municipal and industrial water supply and crucial wetlands protection. The total cost is $1.2 billion.

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That is still a lot of money, given current federal deficits. But, significantly, the bill contains an important new reform element: a requirement that farmers pay a substantial premium for irrigation water used on crops that receive federal subsidies. This is the first step in ending the reclamation practice of using subsidized water to grow subsidized crops. The premium water rate helps make Garrison a responsible project meriting final approval. The Senate must keep the rate feature.

Garrison should serve as a guideline for Congress as it screens other projects now in the pipeline. An $11-billion Corps of Engineers authorization bill is moving through Congress, and billions more are being sought for new reclamation projects. As with Garrison, these projects mustbe subjected to the severest tests of need, cost-effectiveness, environmental impact and realistic repayment by those who benefit.


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