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2 offer bill to improve irrigation

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Two Western senators have introduced a bill that would let states tap federal money to improve irrigation networks and save billions of gallons of water that evaporates or seeps from leaky ditches.

Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., struck a rare alliance in introducing the bill, which also has brought together farmers and environmentalists. The measure would allow states to use some of the roughly $3 billion appropriated each year under the Clean Water Act to lay pipes, line canals or make other improvements to irrigation systems.Wyden said a congressional study shows that 76 percent of the surface water that is diverted for use in the 17 Western states is for irrigation. Oregon uses about 6 billion gallons a day for irrigation, he said.

But about a third of water intended for irrigation is lost to evaporation or leakage from irrigation district ditches, Wyden said. In an Oregon irrigation district, 70 percent of the diverted water never gets to the fields, he said.

"This legislation is especially beneficial in the West, but the fact is water is scarce all over the country," Wyden said.

Burns said water evaporation is a major problem in Montana. "There is one element of the West that we fall on our sabers for, and that's water," he said.

The National Farm Bureau and the Washington State Water Resources Association support the bill.

Tom Myrum, executive director of the association in Yakima, Wash., that represents the state's 97 irrigation districts, said his organization has been drafting plans to conserve water but has been hard pressed to find funding.