Good work in Washington

by Greg Hanscom

Seven years ago, I climbed aboard my aging Toyota Tercel and headed south through a blizzard so strong that it packed my wheel wells with ice. To keep the tires turning, I had to stop at small-town car washes and blast the ice blocks out with hot water.

It was the first of many trips I made to southern Colorado, New Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border to research a series of stories about the Rio Grande. On maps, the Rio Grande is a thin blue line that runs from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. On the ground, the blue is even thinner: In several places, humans have dried up the poor river altogether. Like a worm carved up by an enterprising 4-year-old, it still wriggles in places — and even shimmers from time to time. But it is far from the "Great River" of its name.

In this issue, we offer an alternative to that sad story. So many of the West’s rivers are in trouble these days. But in Oregon, as Matt Jenkins, HCN’s West Coast correspondent, writes, a truly radical community effort is bringing the Deschutes River back to life.

As Matt says, the credit for this work goes largely to the local people on the ground, who have set aside their fears and frustrations, taken a clear-eyed look at the future, and jumped in feet-first. But in the interest of giving credit where it is due, I must also applaud the Bush administration.

Over the past six years, these pages have carried plenty of stories about how the White House has sabotaged environmental protections and torpedoed local conservation efforts. With water, the administration’s record is spotty. The feds have allowed a visionary restoration effort on the San Francisco Bay-Delta to founder. And in the Colorado River Basin, they have basically bowed out of the debate over Las Vegas’ plans to build a massive groundwater-pumping project — a project that could have serious impacts on a national park, three wildlife refuges, and a host of rural farming and ranching communities.

But there’s good news, too. Early in her term, former Interior Secretary Gale Norton held California to the strict water diet imposed by her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt. And in 2003, Norton kicked off the "Water 2025" initiative, an effort to look down the road a ways and avoid water crisis and conflict. Since then, the Interior Department has doled out millions of dollars for projects focused on water conservation, efficiency and water marketing.

One of the grants went to the Deschutes River Conservancy and the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which poured the $250,000 into a far-sighted planning effort. The feds have also funded the conservancy — to the tune of about a half million dollars last year — and provided start-up money for a first-of-its kind water bank, which shuttles water from farms to cities, and back into the river, without the usual pitfalls of unbridled water markets. Each of these efforts is a small piece in a very large puzzle, but they’re all revolutionary in their own way.

Kudos to the people in Washington, D.C., for putting their weight behind a grassroots effort that offers hope for the West’s beaten-down rivers, from the Deschutes to the Rio Grande. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of the same in the future.

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