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Alliance: ‘Mining’ ag water becoming default water policy for urban growth

5/7/05  Article includes information from the Associated Press

Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Quotes from Family Farm Alliance president Pat O’Toole and Chairman of the Board, Bill Kennedy on the importance of enhancing Western water supplies.

Savery – Savery, Wyo. rancher and Family Farm Alliance President Pat O’Toole says, "New demands for water on the Colorado River and other Western basins will be met either with new supplies…or with water taken from agriculture." The Family Farm Alliane is an organization comprised of irrigation farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts and related interests in the 17 western states served by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The group has a mission of ensuring an adequate and reliable supply of water for irrigated agriculture in the West.

O’Toole’s statement came following a decision handed down by Secretary of Interior Gale Norton regarding Colorado River operations. A year ago, federal officials told the seven states in the Colorado River Compact that they had until April 30 to work out a mutual agreement for water flows in 2005. At an April meeting in Las Vegas, the states conceded that they could not agree, and handed the issue to Secretary Norton, who early May announced her decision to maintain Colorado River water releases from Lake Powell at their scheduled level for the next five months because drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have eased during the 2005 water year.

Norton’s decision was met with disappointment by Wyoming water officials. "The drought is very entrenched in Wyoming and the hydrologic conditions would indicate the need to reduce releases,'' Harry LaBonde, Wyoming's deputy state engineer, said May 2.

Upper-basin states Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico want to see less water going into Lake Mead so more water can be captured upstream in Lake Powell. Lake Mead is at 62% capacity and Lake Powell is at 34%.

But lower-basin states California, Arizona and Nevada don't want to see less water flowing into Lake Mead.

LaBonde said it was important to Wyoming that Lake Powell have more water because if that lake were to drain empty, then Wyoming would be forced to cut back the amount of water it can draw from the Green River.

The Green River in southwest Wyoming is among the largest tributaries in the Colorado River system.

This winter's snowpack in the Green River Basin was about 86% of average, LaBonde said.

While Norton's decision will not affect the Green River anytime soon, it could in the future should the drought continue to sap water flowing into Lake Powell, LaBonde said.

Mike Besson, director of the Wyoming Water Development Office, said the Green River is important to agriculture, cities and the mining industry in southwest Wyoming.

"Rock Springs is growing ... and more people need more water," he said.

O’Toole, who operates a ranch on one of the tributaries to the Colorado River said, "The water storage projects on the Colorado River are the main reason why the Western states that rely on the river were able to weather the recent prolonged drought. There are many feasible supply enhancement projects out there that can be developed to satisfy growing urban and environmental water demands and to make sure that every future year does not, in effect, become a drought year."

According to the Family Farm Alliance, "Explosive population growth in the West and Southwest is placing unprecedented demands on the existing supplies at the same time that environmental demands are reducing the amount of water available for human use and consumption. In the past, the nation responded to the need for more water and power in the West by building large dams, which now form the most impressive water supply infrastructure in the world. But many policy makers apparently agree that the ‘era of the big dam’ is over."

The Family Farm Alliance adds, "For some, the answer is to regard agriculture as ‘the reservoir’ that will provide all the water necessary to meet urban and environmental needs. Water currently used for agriculture can be freed up for other uses by buying out farmers or forcing them to surrender their supplies through regulatory means."

So how will we meet the ever-increasing demand for water in the West? O’Toole and the Family Farm Alliance believe improved conservation and efficiency by urban and agricultural water users is certainly part of the solution, but only part.

"It’s simply ludicrous to believe that conservation alone will supply enough water for the tens of millions of new residents expected to arrive in Western cities during the coming decades," said Bill Kennedy, a rancher from Klamath Falls, Oregon who serves as the Chairman of the Board for the Alliance. "This approach will destroy irrigated agriculture in the West. Jobs, homes and whole communities will be lost, and along with them that part of our national security that depends on a diverse and vibrant domestic food production industry."

Yet, despite its harsh human and economic consequences, mining the agricultural water supply is, by default, our national water policy because we are not creating new supplies to meet the demands that are already upon us, says the Alliance.





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