A research resource to drown in

  • Book cover of "Water in the West"


Water in the West: Challenge for the Next Century has received a lot of press, including a lengthy description in this paper (HCN, 6/22/98). Much less attention has been paid to the 22 background studies that go with the central report. Not only is the price right (free), but it is almost guaranteed that, whatever you do, from scholarly research to activism to trying to understand newspaper stories, you will refer to these reports again and again over the coming years.

You will refer to these documents most often if you have the CD-ROM. It weighs an ounce instead of 20 pounds, is a fraction of an inch high instead of a foot high, and will do everything the paper version will do except kindle fires (though maps and charts in the CD-ROM version are less legible).

Critics may see the 22 accompanying reports as a paper Trojan horse, ensuring that the research and the recommendations to which they are tightly attached will find their way onto the shelves or into the CD-ROM cases of every Western library and student of the region.

Most used, I suspect, will be the population study by the Forest Service's Pamela Case and Gregory Alward, which embeds in its numerical projections (Colorado to 4.8 million by 2015 from today's 3.7 million; Montana to just over 1 million from 870,000, and even Wyoming to 641,000 from today's 480,000), a wonderfully concise history of the West's shift from mining and agriculture to today's economy.

This Forest Service study will also tell some Westerners that it is time to head east. Overall, the nation is to grow from the 275 million it is today to 350 million by 2030. The West and South will accommodate almost all of this growth, so if you like stability, you may want to head for the Midwest, or New England, or New York, where the population will stay almost flat.

The growth rate over the next five years seems especially dizzying. Nine of the 10 fastest growing states will be here, in the following order: Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Oregon and Montana. Only Georgia, sandwiched between Wyoming and Oregon, breaks into what would otherwise be a solid Western bloc.

As well as the daunting demographic study, there are reports on climate change, estimated water use, land-use trends and Indian water rights. The demand for water would look impossible to fulfill, except for one fact: 80 to 90 percent of the West's water now goes to agriculture. People using water in their homes and on their lawns use a pittance. Farmers are holding the big bucket into which the future will dip. That may explain why it was an agricultural representative, Patrick O'Toole, who was the lone commission member to issue a minority report.

Perhaps because the commission was established and funded by the Congress, one report describes how water projects are budgeted by the congressional committees that oversee water. There is also an interesting paper on politics. J. William McDonald, who is with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, asks whether the Congress shortchanged the upper basin states of the Colorado and Missouri rivers. He proves, in dollars and acre-feet, that the lower basins on both rivers made out like bandits while the upper basins were left with congressional authorizations but neither money nor its equivalent, water.

A review of a foot-high stack of reports is bound to be uneven and unfair. I did not look at all the reports, let alone read any completely. But I did turn to what has most puzzled me about Western water, and for that reason am grateful to Sue McClurg, who wrote the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basin Study. She explains, as well as anyone could, how the 1,153-square-mile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, once a huge swamp and today a maze of dikes and channels and islands and enormous pumps, worked in the past and works now. She describes the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which take their water out of the delta, and the wealth they have produced and the damage farming, mining, logging and sprawl have done to California's most prolific water source.

Onto this physical base she lays the latest hope for the delta: the CalFed program. It is an attempt to gather around a few tables the federal government, the state government, and the special interests - the irrigators, the cities, the environmentalists and the sportsmen. She explains how the Endangered Species Act, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, and the Clean Water Act - all attempts to rebuild a barn while it continues to burn - have shaped the table.

Also helpful is the report by Leo Eisel and J. David Aiken on the three-state attempt (Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska) to put more water into the Platte River for the threatened or endangered whooping crane, piping plover and least tern.

If the titles below do not entice you to get the set of reports or to call up the project's Internet site at www.den.gov/wwprac/, may your faucets and ditches and snow-making water cannon run dry.


CONTENTS: The Commission's Report; Aquatic Ecosystems Symposium; Budgeting for Federal Water Projects; Climate Variability, Climate Change, and Western Water; Estimates of Water Use in the Western United States in 1990 and Water-Use Trends 1960-90; House and Senate Committee Jurisdiction and Executive Branch Responsibility Over Water Resources;

Improved Drought Management in the West; Indian Water - 1997, Trends and Directions in Federal Water Policy: A Summary of the Conference Proceedings; Patterns of Demographic, Economic, and Value Change in the Western United States: Implications for Water Use and Management; Resource Management at the Watershed Level: An Assessment of the Changing Federal Role in the Emerging Era of Community-Based Watershed Management;

The Upper Basins' Political Conundrum: A Deal is Not a Deal; Water in the West Today: A States' Perspective; Water Management Study: Water Quality in the West; Western Hydropower: Changing Values/New Visions; and Western Land Use Trends and Policy: Implications for Water Resources;

The CD-ROM also includes the following six studies of river basins: Colorado River Basin Study; Platte River Basin Study; A River in Common: The Columbia River, the Salmon Ecosystem, and Water Policy; Sacramento-San Joaquin River Basin Study; Water Management Study: Upper Rio Grande River Basin; and Truckee-Carson River Basin Study.

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