SOME ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS are expressing outrage at President Carter's acceptance of the public-works compromise, which includes funds for eight of the 17 water projects that the administration most wanted to stop. By deciding not to veto the bill, they complain, Mr. Carter has backed off from his commitment to reshape federal water-resources policies and halt projects that are wasteful, unsafe or unsound. Even worse, they argue, he seems to have yielded to pork-barrel politics of the crasset kind: Seven of the eight projects saved, including the most dubious ones, just happen to be in states represented on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the deal was first cut.

In our view, it is not that bad a deal. Besides gaining at least a pause on the Clinch River breeder reactor, Mr. Carter has avoid a nasty veto fight.Although the House might well have upheld him, such a skirmish was hardly to be relished when the energy legislation is approaching the House floor. Moreover, even the compromise trims the water-projects budget more than many thought likely when the fight began. Nine projects, half of the final "hit list," have been suspended. Several others have been modified. The bill also deletes all 12 new projects approved by the House, giving the administration time to review those less frenetically and make recommendations to Congress before any digging has begun.

In a broader sense, too, the compromise does not wash out the value of the fight. Despite the heavy-handedness and posturing on all sides, the political status of water projects has been changed. The most marginal projects now under way have been subjected to scrutiny; their supporters have had to cope with, if not actually accept, the tougher criteria that Mr. Carter has advanced. Dam-building and ditch-digging have turned out to be less untouchable than commonly supposed; the political ground did move when fully 194 House members voted to stop all 17 projects on Mr. Carter's list. The fracas has also been educational for the President. He has apparently learned a lot about dealing with Congress on matters very close to lawmakers' hearts. And he had also gained, we trust, a better understanding of the pervasive role of water in the economy and politics of the West.

The real question is how lasting these gains will be. If Mr. Carter really wants to overhaul water-resource policies, fighting over appropriations is not enough. The administration should ask Congress, soon, to rewrite the basic rules for evaluating dams, irrigation systems and the like. Although that will involve ferocious battles, this week's compromise may make Congress somewhat more receptive to far-reaching review. If that is so, those eight projects may turn out to be a real bargain after all.