When the going gets tough, the tough collaborate


A few years ago, the walls of our brown-bricked town hall reverberated with the voices of citizens engaged in two of the region’s most constantly contentious issues: water and growth. A proposed subdivision promised to stretch Paonia’s water supply to the limit, and many folks thought that the town should not sell new water taps until it secured additional storage. Remember the summer of 1977, they warned, when a drought almost dried up the town’s springs and the lawns all turned brown.

To one pro-development councilman, the memory of the drought was no reason to stop growing. In fact, it gave him the warm fuzzies. Sure, 1977 was a tough year, he said, but we all pulled together and got through. That’s what people in the West do — cooperate.

At the time, the citizens weren’t feeling very cooperative, and they shot down the subdivision. But new developments have been proposed since then, and, even as it promises additional water taps, the town has yet to figure out how it will provide water in a drought. It will likely take another 1977 to spur a real solution.

Of course, it’s human nature to wait until the eleventh hour before collaborating. The good news is, collaboration does happen. Late in April, the seven Western states that use the Colorado River announced that they have come up with a way to give Las Vegas the water it needs to keep growing at breakneck speed, while providing enough water for everyone else, even during a drought. The plan is complicated, involving a new dam, new pipelines and new water-release patterns for the West’s mega-reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell. And it is the product of both contention and cooperation: Nevada had threatened to legally blow up the 1922 Colorado River Compact if it didn’t get a bigger piece of the water pie. That, combined with the growing realization that drought may be a permanent part of the landscape in the coming decades, brought all the states to the table.

No one knows if the new plan will stand up to a mega-drought. But, as George Caan, executive director of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, said, “Ironically, the level of cooperation and flexibility reflected in this plan would have been unthinkable in times of plenty.”

In Arizona’s Prescott Valley, where this issue’s cover story is based, the eleventh hour has arrived, and cooperation and flexibility are in shorter supply than water. As Tony Davis reports, groundwater pumping is draining aquifers and reducing flows in the Verde River, but pro-growth leaders don’t want anything to slow the building of tens of thousands of new homes for retirees and baby boomers. Unfortunately, the solution they have come up with — a pipeline that taps into a main aquifer feeding the river — is akin to eating your own young.

A coalition of local citizens, state officials and water managers from the Phoenix area, which has rights to some Verde water, understands the need for a more far-sighted solution. One can hope that they take a page from the Colorado River states’ negotiations. Of course, if they decide to bring in additional water supplies from far away, they are likely to gore someone else’s ox, setting off yet another round of fighting. Better yet, they could decide to do something no one in the West has ever done: Build a thriving economy that accepts natural limits.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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