The administration's water policy task force has abandoned any attempt to cut back the federal government's dam-building and water project program, or to fundamentally change how it is financed and administered.
Furthermore, despite President Carter's call last year for "comprehensive reform of water resources policy, with conservation as its cornerstone," the draft water policy contains no requirements that states conserve water.
The water policy document, a draft of which was obtained by The Washington Post, reflects a clear desire on the part of administration officials to avoid the kind of political confrontation over water projects it endured with Congress last year.
However, Carter, who will receive the task force's recommendations next week, has said he will consult with Congress, the states and private groups before making up his mind. Environmental groups have sharply criticized the administration for backing off promised changes, while governors have praised Carter's pledge not to interfere with states' rights.
One change thot administration officials called "imperative" last year - an increase in the interest rate used in evaluating projects - has been left out of the document. Carted has said that many of the hundreds of projects authorized by Congress were justified on an unrealistic interest rate. Environmentalists have demanded that the rate - in some cases oas low as 3.25 percent - be increased to reflect the cost of borrowing money.
However, the draft policy contains nor commendation to change the rate - a move that would guarantee a major congressional battle.
Another major issue - who ultimately pays for the billions of dollars worth of federal water projects - is left unresolved in the document. While Carter in the past has criticized the subsidies garnered by irrigation farmers and industries, an early option to recover full costs from the beneficiaries has been abandoned.
Instead, the document suggests that states be required to pay 10 percent front money for projects or that private interests be required to pay back 25 percent of the costs over the life of the project.
Such cost-sharing changes, however, would have little effect over the next two decades if they apply only to new projects, as the document suggests. About 1,280 projects are in various stages of planning and construction by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and other federal agencies.
The task force suggested incorporating new financing formulas as criteria for recommending whether to fund water projects in the president's budgets. However, Congress has traditionally ignored the executive branch's water budget recommendations, so the gesture could have little effect.
The policy document suggests that conservation be emphasized in the building of projects and that "non-structural" alternatives be explored first - for example, a riverside park to absorb floodwaters rather than a dam to impound them.
However, the president will also have to decide whether to apply these new criteria to the backlog of projects approved by Congress. Likewise he must decide whether the Soil Conservation Service, which builds hundreds of small water projects, should be exempted from changes, as suggested by his advisers. Environmentalists strongly oppose any exemption.
The document proposes that the Water Resources Council, a small government planning bureau, review whether water projects comply with economic and environmental standards. However, the review would apparently not cover the backlog.
The toughest conservation measure proposed is an audit of all Reclamation Bureau project costs and the renegotiation of water prices with farmers who have been paying extremely low rates. However, most water contracts are valid for 40 years, so it could take a long time to change them.
However, the document includes no option to require states with severe water shortages to conserve water in exchange for federal supply projects. Earlier administration suggestions - that states be made to manage groundwater, to install water meters, to require efficient irrigation practices - have been abandoned after stats opposition.
Instead, the document proposes what one policy adviser called "a carrot without a stick": a grant program to encourage states to think of ways to manage water supplies.
Far from cutting back on current projects - as Carter tried to do last year - the task force urges him to approve some new ones: the Big South Fork recreation area in Kentucky and Tennessee, the Hartwell Dam in Georgia and South Carolina, and a Davenport, Iowa, flood project.