Water war, or peace?

  • Jonathan Thompson


As 2009 came to an end, I asked readers of our HCN Commons e-mail newsletter what they thought the West's big issues would be in 2010. The predominant response wasn't all that surprising: Water, water and water. Several people agree that this could be the year when water agencies finally acknowledge the natural limits of place. The West is an arid land that can reasonably sustain only so much growth, agriculture, industry and so many swimming pools, and now climate change and a burgeoning population are driving the point home.

Those same readers, however, do not agree on how the generals of the water wars will react. Some believe they will crawl out of their bunkers, olive branches extended, and try to make deals. Others predict an all-out, nasty battle of desperation, in which the generals exploit dirty politics to seize the few drops still remaining. So far, it looks like both may happen.

As Matt Jenkins reports in this issue's cover story, the industrial-strength farmers of the Westlands irrigation district in California's San Joaquin Valley are being squeezed by a number of factors: A diminutive fish called the smelt, selenium-soaked soil that probably shouldn't have been farmed in the first place, the nasty water coming out of increasingly expensive groundwater wells. Mostly, though, their adversary is drought.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, Las Vegas, another traditional water hard-liner, is watching the Colorado River shrivel up. Though the city's main water source has bounced back a bit in the last couple of years, Lakes Mead and Powell still sport huge bathtub rings. Currently, the snowpack that feeds the Colorado is nearly 25 percent below average for this time of year. Vegas, like Westlands, is feeling the squeeze.

Vegas has dug into its arsenal and proposed a new pipeline that would siphon groundwater from more rural parts of the state. The city is also boring a third, $700 million water intake tunnel at Lake Mead so that it can continue sucking water after the reservoir drops below the two existing intakes. But Las Vegas water czarina Pat Mulroy also appears to be moderating and reaching out: In a recent Las Vegas Sun guest editorial, she conceded that water prices would go up in her city, that more conservation was necessary, and that she would consider the idea of funding desalination plants south of the border in exchange for some of the Colorado River water owed to Mexico.

Similarly, Westlands, while not abandoning its bare-knuckled tactics, has embraced conservation –– ­­using more drip irrigation –– and appears to be reaching out, tentatively, to make deals, even with Democrats and environmentalists.

So are we entering a new era of cooperation on water? Perhaps. But it won't necessarily be peaceful. As we went to press, former Rep. Richard Pombo announced he is getting back into politics, with his eye on California's 19th Congressional District. Pombo is no peacemaker; before he lost his seat in 2006, he had devoted most of his political career to a no-compromise crusade to gut the Endangered Species Act. And guess who are among the backers of his current campaign bid? Members of the Westlands irrigation district board.

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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