WATER USE BILL BEING SHOT DOWN - Claiming Water For West Virginia Citizens "Pie In The Sky"

By Bob Weaver

West Virginia's first stab at a water use law, crafted during the past eight months, is sinking fast.

It has been a week of vested interests shooting down proposals by the State of West Virginia to control its water resources.

The bill proposes an inventory of a year's worth of water withdrawals with a survey of the major water users.

It would also create a commission and advisory group to recommend whether there is need for a statewide water management plan.

A dozen or so attorneys and lobbyists told the legislative committee they believe there is little need to move forward with a measure now.

Hampshire County Delegate Jerry Mezzatesta said he objected to language declaring that West Virginia reserve a sovereign interest in the waters of the state as a valuable public resource and that the state should manage state waters for the use and benefit of its citizens.

The proposed bill calls for West Virginia to officially claim the water in streams, creeks, rivers and underground as belonging to the state.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and several other lobby groups have appeared before the committee protesting the bill.

Scott Icard, a lobbyist for American Electric Power, called the bill "a solution in search of a problem."

Billy Jack Gregg, consumer advocate for the state Public Service Commission, said that lawmakers have "already bent over backwards" for industry and should not accept further amendments.

"Be very wary of any further changes in this bill," Gregg said. "Any further weakening of this bill should be avoided at all costs."

D.L. Hamilton, a deputy to Attorney General Darrell McGraw, said that the legislation may have already been weakened too much, saying "I'm not sure what is being protected at this point."

Charleston lawyer David McMahon was the first of several speakers who invoked robber barons and out-of-state control of the state's natural wealth.

West Virginia is one of the few Eastern states that do not have a water use law.

No one keeps track of how much water various users pump out of state rivers, streams, lakes or underground pools.

Many water resource experts believe water could become one of the states greatest resources.

Skeptics believe it is unlikely the State of West Virginia will be able to claim the water rights for the citizens of the state.

With another committee issue, lawmakers approved a set of four industry-proposed amendments to weaken state water quality rules.

The proposals are linked to protections for drinking water supplies and trout streams, and revised pollution limits for dozens of chemicals.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, held up the proposals one by one and ask what special interest group had proposed them.

The proposals were authored and proposed last month by the state Chamber of Commerce, the Independent Oil and Gas Association, the West Virginia Coal Association and the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

"These are four special interest amendments," Unger told fellow committee members. "I thought that [legislators] were supposed to do that, but the legislative process has moved in a different direction."