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Know the West

We wanted to democratize Western water


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

Denise Fort, a faculty member at the University of New Mexico's School of Law, chairs the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission. She is a former director of New Mexico's Environmental Improvement Division and is a member of the National Research Council's Water, Science and Technology Board.

Denise Fort: "The traditional control of Western water has largely been federal because the federal government has had such a major role in the construction of water projects. We were trying to think of ways to democratize water management, to bring it closer to the people in the Western states and to come up with our best shot at how one might do that without dismantling or re-arranging the federal bureaucracy, which is what some people thought we should have done. We were really wrestling with how do you better integrate federal agencies and other levels of government.

"We tried to think about the dysfunction caused by many levels of government and how one might get the system working better. What we talked about was not an original idea but an idea that needed to be embraced in a national report. And that is the idea of integration at the watershed level and at the basin level.

"There are some environmentalists who are concerned that if you have more local input, you'll have decisions which benefit one group at the expense of others. That's a legitimate concern. Making the management of water more democratic could cut both ways. It may mean you've got more development of water resources; it may mean you have less. But at least you have more participation by the people who are affected.

"I think healthy watershed and basin organizations will give us much better participation and decision-making. It's something people ought to be able to agree upon, regardless of their preferences for one outcome or another.

"The hard thing, if you are a federal commission, is how do you talk about the federal government's role in causing that to come about without mandating it? If we look at the successful watershed entities across the West, they're voluntary in most instances. They've come about because local people and agency officials thought it was a good idea. At the basin level - the larger level - they've usually come about because of some crisis. And they're ad hoc. What you have on one major river system may be very different from another river system.

"What we intended to say is it would be a good thing if the federal government nurtured this along. And we were harshly criticized for saying that. I'm not sure why. There are a few possibilities. One is that we didn't say it right, and people thought we were talking about expanded federal powers over water, which is not what we intended to say. So that's what we said in the final report - that (expanded federal powers) was not our intention.

"Another possibility is that people who complain about lack of coordination actually don't mind lack of coordination. Some people may prefer that the only time citizens know what's in an agency budget is after it's been voted on by Congress. And there's another element that can't be discarded. If you've got (watershed and basin) entities, is there some kind of trade-off against federal environmental laws and tribal water rights and other issues? We had a vote on that. It was a sharp vote in which we said no, we didn't think federal standards should be disturbed or be able to be waived by local entities. So it could be that those who were saying that integration was a necessity lost interest."