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Know the West

This report could destroy irrigated agriculture


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Patrick O'Toole raises cattle, sheep and hay near the Wyoming-Colorado border. He serves on the Wyoming Open Space Committee, the Colorado River Coordinating Council and is a director of the Family Farm Alliance. The lone agricultural member of the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission, O'Toole wrote a letter dissenting from the commission's report and issued a water report of his own:

Patrick O'Toole: "It's troubling that I couldn't sign on to the commission report. I have a lot of experience and am a solution-oriented person. The commission report represents an unrealistic and pessimistic view of Western water policy. (It) concludes that more federal regulation, more mandates and more bureaucracy are necessary.

"We can destroy irrigated Western agriculture by policy. Is the problem so onerous we should destroy this sector, essentially to fuel growth? The other day I drove from Denver to Wyoming through the backcountry. It is heart wrenching what we're doing to ourselves. The most remote valleys, the riparian areas, are just full of trophy homes and subdivisions. It is going so fast. Growth is driving policy instead of policy driving growth. That is what we should be concerned about. Instead, we're trying to focus so much federal energy fighting agriculture.

"Agriculture's rights to water are inherent with the state's ability to have control over the water within their borders. This (commission report) is about whether water rights that, in my view, were appropriately given to the states to manage, become federal. That's what this is really about.

"I've searched my soul and I believe holding together the states' constitutionally given rights and working together with the local infrastructure we've developed over the years is a more effective way to deal with these very, very complex governance problems.

"Let me tell you about Muddy Creek for just a moment. Muddy Creek is a high plains, desert tributary to the upper Colorado River. It's something our community has been involved in for a long time. It's a microcosm of the hopeful nature of solving water problems. It involves everything from grazing to oil and gas to the reintroduction of cutthroat trout to building wetlands - all those pieces.

"It has now become an example of why the system doesn't work anymore. You have all the federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the other varieties - all involved. It's become a catastrophe from the community's point of view. We have people who've won awards for Western conservation stuff. We have the best Natural Resource Conservation Service employee you could ever have. And they've got him hammered. It's threats and counterthreats. Its like a tag-team match among the federal agencies.

"You have to realize the federal government empowers people at the G-9, G-10 level, whose egos are so tied to controlling process they won't let the process work. Federal agencies are incapable of giving up responsibility. And the major commission report talked about that. But the commission also recommended basin-wide oversight with presidential appointees that innately, inherently, inevitably causes the same problems that everyone has problems with in the first place. It's ironic."