WASHINGTON (DTN)--Environmental Defense, a major lobbying group, said late Wednesday, Feb. 6, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, plans to offer an amendment to change a controversial water rights provision in the farm bill so farmers could transfer water rights to a state government agency rather than to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture as Reid had planned.

The bill says participants in the land idling Conservation Reserve Program can get higher payments if they give up their right to water. Environmentalists say the provision would reward farmers who voluntarily lease or sell water rights to help save endangered fish, but western farm leaders and senators claimed it would amount to a federal government water grab. During the farm bill debate in December, the American Farm Bureau Federation said it would oppose the bill if the measure stayed in.

Environmental Defense lobbyist Scott Faber said the governor of each state would decide which state agency would receive the water. There are sometimes harsh battles between state agencies over control of water, with the state departments of agriculture in conflict with departments of natural resources. Environmental Defense said under the provision all water transfers would be subject to state water law and approval by state officials.

"Freshwater species are disappearing five times faster than North America's mammals and birds, and inadequate stream flow is among the leading threats--especially in western states," Environmental Defense said in a statement, adding the provision would benefit species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, bull trout and pacific salmon and ease tensions in areas like Oregon's Klamath basin.

Environmental Defense said Reid is expected to propose two new programs, one to give states funds to lease or buy water rights to help endangered fish, and to share the cost of irrigation efficiency infrastructure, provided that most "conserved" water is used to provide adequate stream flows for fish. The second new program would pay farmers more for a Conservation Reserve Program contract if they voluntarily lease their water rights to the state.

The environmental group said, "Congress should seize this opportunity to reward farmers and protect wildlife at the same time. The water conservation program in the Senate conservation title will help save endangered fish from extinction by providing good stewards adequate resources, consistent with state water law and subject to the approval of state officials."

Farm groups could not immediately be reached for comment, but earlier in the day Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher said farm groups were working with Reid to try to resolve the issue so that the farm bill could proceed.

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