First, you notice the coyotes. Then shadows swirl near shore - a group of razorback suckers, an endangered species, moving in to spawn. You are on the shore of Lake Mohave - a long, narrow reservoir on the Arizona-Nevada border. This is not a place one normally goes for inspiration. The sound of a motor is never far away. Houseboat. Fishing boat. Game warden boat. Hoover Dam is 30 miles north. Las Vegas, the fastest-growing city in the nation, is just beyond that.
Yet here, on the unlovely
lower Colorado River, is a metaphor for water in the West. The
green-gold liquid at your feet is no joyful mountain stream. This
water works hard. There are kilowatt-hours in this water,
acre-feet, recreation days, dollars and cents. This is a working
river, an overworked river, and the heavy lifting is taking a
Look closely at Lake Mohave, look closely
at water across the West and you can see the signs of stress.
Two-thirds of Arizona's native fish are threatened or endangered.
Lake Alice Dam in Wyoming is leaking. Sediment chokes the Rio
Grande, the Gila, the San Joaquin. Salmon and steelhead struggle in
the Pacific Northwest. On the Great Plains, the Ogallala Aquifer is
shrinking, groundwater is contaminated and irrigated farming is in
But where does one go for a complete
physical exam - a check-up on the status and future of water in the
West? Scientific journals? Too narrow. The Denver Post? The Arizona
Republic? The San Francisco Chronicle? Not much there. The U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation? The Fish and Wildlife Service? Too
bureaucratic. The sad truth is there is no family-practice center
for Western water to tell us how we are doing and where we are
Soon, though, there will be. In July, the
Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission is scheduled to
publish its magnum opus: Water in the West: The Challenge for the
Next Century. You may not have heard about it. But if the final
report resembles the draft version circulating now, expect
headlines. For it is perhaps the most far-sighted federal study of
Western water since John Wesley Powell's visionary Report on the
Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, published in
This is more than a water study. It is a
mission statement and a wake-up call. In places, the report is as
revolutionary as Copernicus. It sketches more democratic orbits for
federal water management, puts a new spin on Western water. It
spots comets - such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered
Species Act - but sees no reason for panic, no threat to progress.
It identifies contemporary water problems, highlights troublesome
trends, such as rapid urban growth, challenges the status quo,
replaces sentiment and myth with science. But still, the report
falls flat. Water in the West is brilliant one moment, boring the
next. There is too much bureaucratic babble. It needs a James
Michener or a Wallace Stegner - someone to rework the language of
water-speak and give it life and clarity and make it
But listen closely and you can hear the
steady tap-tap-tap of science, nature and thirsty cities at the
barricaded door of Western water law. If made into legislation,
Water in the West would lift that door from its hinges, retool it
and make it swing more freely.
It would restore
aquatic ecosystems, find new uses for dams, free up more water for
cities through water markets, realign federal programs along
watershed boundaries, restore water to Indian reservations,
encourage more efficient use of agricultural water and bring more
local voice to federal water management.
Separated by 120 years, Water in the West and Powell's Lands of the
Arid Region report share the same North Star: sustainable water
use. Powell, though, focused on economic development. Water in the
West navigates a broader universe and recognizes new and
long-overlooked nebulae in the water cosmos, including recreation,
environmental protection and, through Native American claims,
The first jolt
comes quickly, three paragraphs into the report: "The commission
(has) identified unhealthy trends in aquatic ecosystems and water
quality, pressing water supply problems, unfilled American Indian
water claims, an agricultural economy suffering the stress of
transition, rapid conversion of open space to urban development and
rising drought and flood damage exacerbated by the potential for
global warming. Additional population growth will cause these
crises to worsen unless bold action is taken."
There are more tremors ahead. "Our state and federal water
institutions are a quilt of historic programs and laws aimed at
developing water for economic purposes and protecting those uses
against change," the report says. "These are overlain with more
recently created laws seeking to limit the negative environmental
effects of the historic programs. The result is a large array of
agencies and programs working at cross-purposes ... These problems
cannot be resolved piecemeal but must be addressed by fundamental
changes in institutional structure and government process."
Powerful, important stuff. But what makes the
report significant is the commission itself. The Western Water
Policy Review Advisory Commission is no small dog yapping at a
parade. It is a part of the federal water establishment - created
by Congress in 1992 to review federal activities in the Western
states which affect the allocation and use of water
There are 22 members - including the
secretary of Interior, the secretary of the Army and 12 ex-officio
members of Congress. The nucleus, the brain trust, is made up of
eight citizen members - three water-law professors, two water
lawyers, a rancher, an Indian lawyer and the deputy administrator
of the Bonneville Power Administration - an all-volunteer group
appointed by President Clinton.
The report is
not law, of course. But it is meant to influence legislation - to
help Congress shape ideas and see new ways of doing business. It is
modeled after the Public Land Law Review Commission, which
investigated mining law abuses in the 1960s and "70s, and the
National Water Policy Commission of 1973, which called for a halt
to subsidized reclamation and for more accurate pricing for
agricultural and municipal and industrial water.
No wonder the water establishment is nervous. No wonder
environmentalists, Native Americans and cities searching for new
water sources are pleased. No wonder both sides are flooding the
commission with public comments:
commission majority has succumbed to that irresistible academic
urge to control everything. ... There are so many flaws in the
report that it seems impossible to list them. ... This draft report
is the Edsel of advisory reports on Western water issues. Like
other improperly designed reports, it too should be taken off the
production line. The real challenge of the 21st century will be to
ignore advice like this and seek responsible solutions that the
West faces in dealing with water resource issues," according to a
comment from Robert Lynch, chairman of the board of the Central
Arizona Project Association.
* "Water in the
West: The Challenge for the Next Century is the most
forward-looking water policy document I have seen coming from the
federal government and I have given more than 40 years of attention
to water resources management. Whatever its shortcomings, and they
are not serious, this report has the potential to be very helpful,"
said Professor Kenneth Hammond of the Department of Geography,
Central Washington University.
One of the
biggest conflict zones is agriculture. The report identifies
agriculture - through irrigated return flows - as the West's
biggest water polluter. It also spotlights agriculture as the
West's largest water user. Commission member Patrick O'Toole, a
Wyoming rancher, has written a letter dissenting from the report.
Many of the public comments criticize the report for being
"A lot of
commission members disagree strongly with that characterization,"
commission chair Denise Fort said in an interview. "Indeed, when
you try to figure out if the people who are saying that have read
the report or can point to specific cases where that's the case,
it's hard to find it. We also made changes where people identified
specific places where it was said there was something
the commission did endorse the necessity for continued federal
standards and protection of water quality, endangered species and
tribal water rights. Of course, there's a great conflict in the
West over whether the federal government has a legitimate role in
any of those areas. The commission concluded that it does."
What happens next? Insiders
say the report will go nowhere, especially with Western Republicans
running important committees in the U.S. House of Representatives.
More fodder for file cabinets, they say.
history is any guide, and Powell's report is as good a template as
any, Water in the West will have a lasting impact. It will prepare
the soil for long-term change. It will loosen and aerate, sow
seeds, work in nutrients of knowledge. More likely than not, Water
in the West won't beat down the door to reform; it will pry it open
There is one thing on which most people
can agree: This study needs a diet. The main report - at 410 pages
- is hefty. But it is just a warm-up. Water in the West comes with
23 supplementary reports (2,000-plus pages by scientists,
consultants, professors and other hired help) on drought
management, climatic variability, federal water budgets, Indian
water claims and much, much more.
There are even
six river basin studies - in-depth snapshots of the Columbia,
Colorado, Platte, Sacramento-San Joaquin, Truckee-Carson and Upper
Rio Grande watersheds. On a bathroom scale, the whole package
weighs more than 15 pounds. One wonders who will read it. Powell
boiled his report down to 200 pages. Certainly, Water in the West
could have been trimmed.
But this is an age of
giganticism. Giant business mergers. Titanic movies. Huge tobacco
settlements. And alas, giant federal reports. Small may be
beautiful. But big, it seems, is better. "The topic is a really
large one," said Fort, an associate professor of law at the
University of New Mexico School of
"A lot of national
commissions seem to mostly have conversations among themselves,"
Fort continued. "I thought that, in addition to doing that, we
would make a greater contribution if we generated research (through
the supplementary reports) that would be useful to the commission
Obesity isn't the only problem.
Much of Water in the West suffers from a malady common to
government documents: It doesn't flow. No river runs through it. It
eddies into bureaucratic backwaters, meanders into scientific
swamps. The prose is turbid, muddied by jargon. Reading it is
Chinese water torture. It is Sominex in print. It reminds me of
what journalist H.L. Mencken said about former President Warren G.
Harding: "Harding writes the worst English I have ever encountered;
it reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it is so bad a kind of
grandeur creeps into it."
Sentences that would
be euthanized at newspapers and magazines across America live
happily in the main report. They thrive in the thicket of side
reports. Together, they form a kind of Novocain likely to numb all
but the most determined water wonks:
basins differed somewhat in streamflow response and flood
frequency, with lower elevation basins becoming mostly
rainfall-dominated systems under the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics
Laboratory (GFDL) and Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)
scenarios, while the higher elevation Merced Basin still retained
the character of a snowmelt-dominated system, although melt and
runoff occurred much earlier in GFDL and GISS scenarios."
* "While the RUS program is difficult to sort
between water supply and water quality since both functions are
eligible for funding."
* "Although relatively
few and far between, rivers flow through the mountain and valley
landscapes of the Western USA."
* "We propose a
change in the function and approach of the federal resource
agencies to a "nested" governance structure. This new governance
approach reflects the hydrologic, social, legal and political
reality of the watershed. Fundamental principles of those
governance structures are: regional flexibility, participation of
all affected stakeholders in formulating joint programs to
effectuate federal objectives and recognition that intensive
interaction among federal, state, tribal and local governmental
entities and stakeholders is essential to design durable
But just when you are nodding off,
a light comes on. You see, in one side report, a link between land
use and disease.
* "Most runoff in the USA that
is diverted for use is no longer healthful because it is recycled
through human systems over and over from headwaters to oceans along
river corridors, thereby compromising the natural cleansing
capacity of lakes, wetlands and rivers. We have a crisis because
our fresh-water ecosystems both above and below ground are
accumulating toxic pollutants, are increasingly acid, saline or
eutrophied and increasingly dominated by non-native biota at the
expense of native species. Urban residents now prefer bottled to
tap water and rural residents must drill ever-deeper wells to avoid
In another study, you
see the long reach of history. You see regulatory colonialism - the
making of decisions far from where the salmon swim and cutthroat
* "There seems to be little question that
non-federal hydro-(electricity generation) has contributed to
aquatic environmental damage," the report says. "The major
opportunity to encourage non-federal owners of hydro capacity to
contribute to mitigation - as Bonneville Power Administration hydro
users have for years - is in the dozens of relicensing cases now
just getting under way before the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission. ... Interestingly, the issues will be resolved by a
distant federal agency with, at the moment, no commissioner from
You see the main report hitting
* "A great constant is the need for the
federal government to get its house in order. The separate
development of programs to deal with first-generation multiple uses
- irrigation, flood control and hydro-electric power generation -
has frustrated coordinated and efficient water resources
policy remains an unrationalized accretion of the interests of many
constituencies. It is much like Chinese dynastic history; each new
history is added to others and nothing is subtracted or
The line about Chinese dynastic
history must have offended someone because there's a black line
through it in the most recent draft. It's been cut. But it's too
wonderful to lose. It can live here a while
"The overlay of second
generation multiple uses - water pollution prevention and
biodiversity maintenance - has only complicated matters. New
federal agencies, with no direct responsibilities for water
development and management, have been given strong environmental
protection mandates by Congress. These mandates are not well
integrated with previous agency missions and authorities."
There are scores of factual gems, too - nuggets
you can extract and put to your own use. You can take them to
cocktail parties, impress and depress your friends at the same
time. You can even make a customized Harper's Index of Western
* Percent of U.S. hydropower generated by
Western rivers (70).
* Percent of Western water
used by farmers (78). By domestic and commercial users
* Number of native Western fish species
that have gone extinct this century (22); number now threatened,
endangered or of special concern (more than
* Percent of U.S. reservoir capacity in
the 17 Western states (67.6).
fastest-growing states in the U.S. (Nevada, Idaho, Arizona,
study's most important contribution is its broad-brush look at
Western water - and what can be done to manage it more wisely. If
Water in the West is a physical exam, here are some of the
scribblings on the doctor's chart:
"Achieving sustainable groundwater use is one of the major
challenges facing the West. ... The U.S. Geological Survey projects
severe depletions in the High Plains region by the year 2020. ...
State laws commonly allow groundwater overdraft - the depletion of
an aquifer at a rate faster than the natural rate of discharge."
DROUGHT: "We continue to treat drought as an
emergency rather than a systemic risk in arid areas. ... We must
realize drought is a recurrent feature of the climate of the West.
... As the demand for relatively fixed water supplies increases,
future droughts can be expected to produce greater impacts."
URBAN GROWTH: "For the past 15 years, the West
has been experiencing the most dramatic demographic changes for any
region or period in the country's history. Should present trends
continue, by 2020, population in the West may increase by more than
30 percent. The West is rapidly becoming a series of urban
archipelagos (e.g. Denver, Salt Lake, Boise, Missoula, Portland,
Phoenix, Albuquerque, Dallas, Houston and Seattle) arrayed across a
mostly arid landscape.
"Nationally, per capita
water use is about 40 gallons of water daily; in the desert
Southwest (where residents use a large part of their urban water
supplies to water lawns and gardens), the average per capita daily
use is three times as high and the per capita use for Las Vegas and
Phoenix is over 300 gallons per day."
"Characterizing floods as natural disasters has made it difficult
to recognize the need for periodic inundations on some river
systems to maintain their historic natural productivity and their
riparian zones. ...
land management policies have increased the magnitude of floods and
settlement of flood plains and thus the amount of flood damages. In
addition, floodplain management programs have not succeeded in
mitigating flood losses in most situations. Multiple-purpose dams
have often increased downstream flooding by diminishing the
channels' capacity to pass floods. ... For example, Elephant Butte
Dam on the Rio Grande in New Mexico has increased flooding in El
Paso by reducing flushing of the stream channel downstream.
Sediment from bank scouring has combined with sediment loads from
undammed tributaries to raise the (river) bed level downstream. The
net result is that even though Elephant Butte Dam has reduced
pre-dam flows at El Paso by as much as 75 percent, small floods can
do a great deal of damage."
"At least 40 kinds of North American freshwater species have
suffered extinction in the last century, more than half this total
in arid lands west of the Continental Divide. ... It must be
recognized that native biota are sentinels of ecological change.
Reductions in their abundance signal the beginning of ecosystem
deterioration and disappearances of sensitive species demonstrate
major shifts in an ecosystem that may often precede its collapse."
POLLUTION: "Despite progress in the quality of
Western water, significant problems remain. ... Among the most
serious unregulated forms of water pollution is that generated by
irrigated agriculture and drainage districts. Irrigation return
flows can, in certain situations, contain toxic constituents as
well as salts, pesticides and fertilizers. ... Western irrigated
cropland accounts for 89 percent of quality-impaired river mileage
and irrigated agriculture accounts for more than 40 percent of the
pollution in impaired lakes. Irrigation return flows are the most
common source of pollution in national wildlife refuges."
SCIENCE: "Water resources management has
generally been supported by good science, but the research missions
of government agencies are not well adapted to produce the science
needed to make informed aquatic restoration decisions. Too often,
we spend millions of dollars on science that cannot be applied to
make the necessary regulatory decisions. The Sacramento-San Joaquin
River Basin Study reported a familiar problem: Millions of dollars
have been spent on numerous projects that study elements of the
ecosystem, but the research has not been integrated. Thus,
scientists cannot answer questions that are basic to making
sustainable use decisions. ... We need more focused and integrated
DAMS: "Many dams are now providing
benefits to a much broader range of interests than was originally
envisioned. ... Many structures are getting older and must be the
focus of significant maintenance decisions. The issue of
maintenance is critical given the declining federal budget."
INDIAN WATER RIGHTS: "The federal government
needs to fulfill its trust responsibilities to Indian tribes and
nations to secure tribal water rights and assist the nations and
tribes in putting those rights to use. Federal contributions toward
meeting these obligations should not be limited to potential
federal liability for breach of trust, but should recognize a moral
and legal obligation to protect and assist the tribes. The federal
government should recognize that it has often failed to protect
prior and paramount Indian water rights while encouraging and
financing non-Indian water development."
Spotlighting problems is one thing. Fixing them
is another. Water in the West proposes an entire drug store of
remedies, from the expansion of water marketing - the voluntary
sale of water, usually from agriculture to urban areas - to the use
of federal dams to heal downstream ecosystems. "Dams have a great
potential to contribute to ecosystem restoration because they are a
source of altered flows and, where power is generated, restoration
funds," the report says.
Water in the West also
suggests that we borrow a page from John Wesley Powell and shape
and integrate federal agencies, programs and budgets along
hydrological boundaries. The concept failed in the 1870s and faces
opposition today. But in ways that are as mysterious as water,
governance by large river-basin unit is taking hold anyway. You can
see it in the multi-agency restoration efforts in the
Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California, along the Platte
River in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, the Truckee River in
California and Nevada and the Columbia River in the
The idea has drawn howls of protest
from critics who see it as a federal intrusion into state water law
and administration. But Fort, a member of the National Research
Council's Water, Science and Technology Board,
"We're not talking
about broader federal powers," she said. "What we're attempting to
do is address the complaint, which was voiced so often, of too many
federal agencies that are ill-coordinated and sometimes
contradictory. If that's the problem, the answer is to bring them
together in some visible setting where they have to coordinate."
You can see democracy bubbling up, too,
challenging the oligarchy of traditional water use, the monopoly of
state and federal decision-making. The Henry's Fork Watershed
Council in Idaho and the Walker Lake Working Group in Nevada are
two of many examples. There are more players at the table. There
are trout fishermen, river rafters, university professors, stream
restoration specialists, Indian tribes, booming Western cities - as
well as farmers, power companies and engineers. By proxy, there are
razorback suckers, cutthroat trout, cottonwood trees, whole aquatic
ecosystems. And everyone, everything, is thirsty. Water in the West
has looked at this - and pronounced it
"To accept local
participation is not simply to engage in a democratic exercise,"
the report says, "but to recognize the need for sustainable local
economies and energetic stakeholder consensus to replace
frustration and dissension. ... From the bottom up, the new federal
challenge will be to effectively participate with local
stakeholders through watershed groups and watershed councils."
But as the number of players increases, the
stakes get higher. Decisions get tougher. Selling agricultural
water to cities means drying up some farms, shrinking rural
Sending Colorado water to Nebraska
for sandhill cranes means less water for Colorado
Deregulating the utility industry
means less money for hydropower - and less environmental
mitigation. Water in the West recognizes this, too. But alas, it
has no miracle cure.
The sobering truth is that
no panacea exists, the report says. Rapidly growing demands on
Western water resources continue to pose a formidable challenge to
our capacity for institutional
"There will be fewer
truly win-win solutions in the future. Instead, we seek solutions
that equitably share the burden and minimize social disruption."
Tom Knudson is a two-time
Pultizer Prize winning journalist, western water user and special
assistant to U.S. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. The opinions
expressed in this article are his own.
Copies of the report should be available by
mid-August from the Western Water Policy Review Advisory
Commission, P.O. Box 25007, Denver, CO 80225-007. It can be seen
July 1 at www.den.doi.gov/wwprac/. The report is free and there are
no restrictions on its reproduction.