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Environment News Service (ENS)


Competing Thirsts Squeeze Dry Western States

By J.R. Pegg

, March 10, 2004 (ENS) -
Western states bracing for another dry, hot summer need to recognize a fundamental shift in the contentious debate over water supplies, a top Interior Department official said on Tuesday.

The drought stricken region now faces the "potential for crisis in normal conditions," according to Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Bennett Raley.

The Western water disputes of the last century were largely limited to times of drought or focused on long term control of the resource, Raley told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

That has changed, and the debate is no longer driven by drought, he said.

The continued population growth of the West, combined with the demands of agriculture and conservation, "guarantee that without action today we will have crises in normal years," Raley warned. 

Many in the West would welcome a normal year, but there are few signs one is around the corner.

The interior West is suffering from a multiyear drought that began in 1999, according to Dr. Louis Uccellini, director of the National Center for Environmental Prediction at the National Weather Service.

Uccellini told the committee the current drought is one of the worst the West has seen in the past 40 to 100 years.

He said a return to more normal snowfall this winter will provide some relief - snow contributes some 50 percent to 80 percent of the region's water supply.

But accumulated long term deficits remain large in many areas - in particular in the Southwest. The majority of reservoirs in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona are at 50 percent or below normal levels, he told the committee, and changing climate patterns could increase pressure on the arid region in the future.

"We see a warming trend over several decades for much of interior West and expect it to continue," Uccellini said.

And the population and economic growth that is adding pressure to the situation raises the stakes for all involved, Raley said.

Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Bennett Raley.
(Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

Future water supply shortages, Raley said, will cause economic harm in the West that will ripple throughout the national and international economies.

"We no longer have the luxury to debate for decades to come," Raley said.

The issue presents a daunting test for elected officials, who must balance the competing thirsts of urban residents, agricultural and recreational interests, along with the needs of the region's power plants and its fish and wildlife.

"I do not even know where to begin to describe the vast challenges faced by states like mine," said Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. "The need is astronomical, pervasive and persistent."

Domenici said many rural Western communities are struggling with the resources to fund the allocation of clean water and the treatment of wastewater.

"Things are literally falling apart," he said. "I keep reading that the government wants to help but everything I see is too miniscule for the size of the problem we can no longer put off our federal responsibility."

But the federal response to drought has been poorly coordinated because responsibilities are scattered across the federal government, said Craig Bell, executive director of the Western States Water Council, which consists of representatives from 18 Western states and is a product of the Western Governors Association.

The federal government has given Western states broad authority with regards to water, but several federal agencies play pivotal - and often competing - roles in allocating the finite supply in the West.

In addition, federal agencies combined spend some $6 billion to $8 billion a year on drought.

Bell called for the Congress to pass the Drought Preparedness Act of 2003, which would put in place a comprehensive national drought policy and authorize a lead federal agency for drought, delineating the roles and responsibilities for coordinating and integrating federal assistance for droughts.

"That would get us away from this ad-hoc fragmented approach to drought," Bell said. "It would help us manage water in the West more effectively and efficiently."

Bell said Western states are also keen for the federal government to provide better information about water resources, weather trends and future climate shifts that could further reduce the area's water supply.

"We lack info about vital [factors] that affect drought and impact the West," Bell said. "We need better information."

Drought is a major contributor to the wildfires that have ravaged the

West in the past decade. (Photo courtesy Forest Service)

A key focus for the Bush administration, Raley said, is its Water 2025 Initiative, which it unveiled last year as a plan to prevent water crises and conflicts in the West.

The program calls for concentrating existing federal financial and technical resources in key western watersheds and in critical research and development efforts that will help to predict, prevent and alleviate water supply conflicts.

The grant program focuses on "things we know we can do on the ground to make a difference," Raley said.

For the short term, the Bush administration is "most worried" about the water challenges in the Middle Rio Grande and the Klamath River Basins, Raley said, and plans to focus its Water 2025 program at these areas.

Recent crises in both basins have pitted farmers, urban residents, Native American tribes and wildlife against one another - each demanding a share of the scarce water supply - situations that have been made more contentious by sustained drought.

The administration has proposed $21 million in grants through the 2025 Initiative to develop conservation, efficiency and water marketing projects. Critics say the total is far too small to help create long term solutions to these water disputes. 


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