For frustrated anglers and boaters on Brownlee Reservoir, it must look like a heap of work piled up in the wrong place.

But in the realm of federal paperwork, the pending environmental assessment on the use of water from Phillips Reservoir only looks like a grandiose way of stating the obvious.

Because the document being prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will only validate what has been happening in the Baker Valley Irrigation District since irrigation started: that water spread on eligible lands flows north and east toward the Powder River, wetting ineligible lands along the way.

The new agreement between the federal government and the district will legitimize this practice, which is, after all, essentially a function of physics. As a result, visible change isnt likely to take place on the ground.

That is precisely what irrigators need, however: a guarantee that wise irrigation practices and the laws of physics wont bump up against federal regulators at some future date.

In the meantime, the experience should be a reminder to anyone with water rights. Just as electricity is proving scarce in the 21st century, demand for water for irrigation or, more likely, drinking could someday precipitate cross-country grabs from thirsty metropolitan areas.

Farmers, ranchers and even gentleman agrarians need to have their ducks in a row ahead of time or face the risk of costly battles to defend their water rights.

Most, we suspect, already have done so.

Meanwhile, though, Baker County has a much more serious problem with another of its reservoirs: Brownlee.

Fluctuating water levels, a function of flood control and salmon restoration efforts, have rendered the reservoir unfit for fishing and boating at times including the peak summer recreation season.

This is frustrating for fishermen and women, but its economically disastrous for merchants in Richland, Huntington and other small towns that depend on water-loving visitors dollars.

We wish the federal government could divert some of the thousands of dollars it is spending to re-state the obvious about Phillips Reservoir to search for a solution to the Brownlee debacle.