Western water: Why it's dirty and in short supply

  • Boating the Snake River below Brownlee Dam

    Michael Collier photo
  • Center-pivot irrigating near Parshall, Colorado

    Michael Collier photo
  • Reservoir storage in the West

    Diane Sylvain

Note: in two sidebar articles that accompany this feature story, rancher Patrick O'Toole and chair of the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission Denise Fort share their views in their own words.

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 toll.

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 retreat.

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 going.

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 1878.

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 shine.

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, religion.

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 resources.

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:

* "The 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 anti-agriculture.

"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 anti-agricultural.

"That said, 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.

But if 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 slowly.

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 Law.

"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 and others."

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:

* "The 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 solutions."

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 serious contamination."

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 spawn.

* "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 the West."

You see the main report hitting bedrock.

* "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 development.

"Federal water 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 integrated."

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 longer.

"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 water:

* Percent of U.S. hydropower generated by Western rivers (70).

* Percent of Western water used by farmers (78). By domestic and commercial users (10).

* Number of native Western fish species that have gone extinct this century (22); number now threatened, endangered or of special concern (more than 100).

* Percent of U.S. reservoir capacity in the 17 Western states (67.6).

* Five fastest-growing states in the U.S. (Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Utah).

But the 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:

GROUNDWATER: "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."

FLOODS: "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. ...

"Water and 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."

AQUATIC SPECIES: "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 research."

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 Northwest.

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, disagrees.

"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 good.

"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 economies.

Sending Colorado water to Nebraska for sandhill cranes means less water for Colorado squawfish.

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 change:

"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.

High Country News Classifieds
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.