The persistent drought in much
of the Intermountain West, including Idaho, was
one of the key reasons that the The Cecil Andrus
Center decided to convene its "Troubled Water:
Exploring Solutions for the Western Water
Crisis" conference in April.
The international conference had
First, it sought to bring together experts,
officials and activities of various persuasions
to address the question of water and its uses in
the western United States.
While the ongoing drought and its management was
a central concern, attendees were also presented
with discussions and a hard-hitting,
role-playing scenario that entered into related
topics such as the changing patterns of use and
ownership of water, demographic developments in
the West, the need for new dams and litigation
Second, the conference sought to explore
international water issues, as drought is a
persistent phenomenon that occurs worldwide.
Most Americans are not familiar with
water-access problems that much of the rest of
the world experiences. How and under what
conditions that water is made accessible led to
Water's increasing definition as a commodity,
both internationally and in the Western United
States, also played into these discussions.
Southern Idaho is home to a huge source of
water, the Snake River Plain aquifer.
Over time Idahoans have learned that ground
water and surface uses of water affect each
Water "calls" were in the process of being made
in several places, where surface water users
were challenging ground water pumping because it
was affecting their ability to use the water
allocated to them.
Within that issue was the further paradox that
increased water efficiencies (less surface water
used for irrigation) had led to smaller
Another, and inter-related reason that
influenced the Andrus Center's decision to host
the two-day conference, was the recently
approved settlement agreement between the state
of Idaho and the Nez Perce tribe over the
tribe's water claims on water in the Snake River
and its tributaries.
This agreement, although contentious and having
some of the contours of a gun-to-the head
collaboration, was nonetheless seen as offering
a model for future collaboration over water.
While the agreement was celebrated during the
conference, it was also clear that the
uncertainty over any court decision on the issue
was too much to risk, hence the gun to the head
... "it's time those
– Cecil Andrus
Dr. Richard Meganck, the
director of UNESCO's Institute for Water
Education in the Netherlands, opened the
conference with a global perspective.
He told attendees that the key international
water problem was the geographical distribution
of the resource in relation to population and
when people could gain access to water.
Meganck said there are more than 1 billion
people worldwide who don't have enough supplies
of water; 90 percent of whom live in Asia and
Africa. These numbers are true for both drinking
water and that needed for sanitary uses.
He said transboundary water management, water
pricing and water as a human right were other
He concluded that there was a crisis of
management resulting form "bad institutions, bad
governance, bad incentives and bad allocation of
An international panel illustrated a major
conflict in how water is increasingly viewed
throughout the world. Maude Barlow, chairperson
of the Council of Canadians, put the conflict in
She spoke in terms of two divergent views: one
that looked at water as a commodity, where it
"should be put on the open market for sale and
should be priced."
Entities said to favor this approach are the
World Bank, large companies like Suez North
America, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, as well countries
that host those corporations, primarily in
The other view considers water as a right,
belonging to no one, a "fundamental human
In a fortuitous pairing, Barlow's presentation
was followed by one by Patrick Cairo, vice
president of Suez North America, which among
other ventures is the parent company of United
Water, who supplies much of the water to urban
Cairo defended Suez, asserting that the company
had to follow host country rules. Using Buenos
Aires as an example of how Suez had improved the
supply and quality of water to the city, Cairo
said that the company had connected over 3
million new water users over the past seven
He called for outright aid, rather than loans,
to improve the situation in poorer regions of
the world where cross-subsidy rates were not
The afternoon of the conference's first day
began with a panel of well-known individuals who
were asked to think about the West and its
water, or as Marc Reisner once framed it, "the
West has a desert heart."
Panelists revealed both the disagreements one
might expect from such diverse backgrounds, i.e.
state and local water agencies, conservation
groups, and for-profit water companies, yet also
appeared to leave room for an agreement that
they needed to work collectively to resolve
Some panelists thought that the solution to
Western drought issues was the creation of more
Clearly, all agreed that previous storage had
allowed much of the West to weather the current
drought better than otherwise possible.
Panelist Commissioner of Reclamation John Keys
and others suggested that in some cases in
some basins, more storage was needed.
Others, such as Mike Clark of Trout Unlimited,
focused on better water management; while still
others like former Solicitor John Leshy pointed
out that newer concerns over endangered species
added further complexity to water issues.
Leshy also reminded attendees
that the cost of new storage projects would be
huge, and that perhaps market mechanisms might
allocate water more cheaply.
Keys suggested that if projects were built, the
era of federal money paying for the construction
was well over.
To others, the growing urbanization of the west
led to concern over adverse effects on
Creative solutions also received much
farmers for their water and having them continue
to farm, except in drought conditions where the
water would be reallocated to urban needs;
the re-use of water; and
Idaho's U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo presented
conference attendees with a thoughtful history
of the expanding role of the federal government
in water through regulations, incentives,
research and financial laws and policies.
Crapo is a strong believer that states' should
take the lead role in managing water, but
acknowledged that there would be a clear federal
presence in future water discussions.
The senator suggested that solutions agreed to
at a state level were better than those imposed
by Congress at a national one.
This, of course, is a model that is increasingly
invoked, at least in Idaho, where local members
of Congress play roles more as facilitators or
ratifiers of locally or regionally crafted
agreements, such as Crapo is sponsoring with the
Owyhee Initiative, a wide-scale land-management
proposal developed collaboratively between
ranchers, conservationists, county officials,
recreation users, and other interested people.
The highlight of the conference was what we call
the "Andrus Center Dialogue."
The dialogue enabled a distinguished group of
panelists to play different roles in a scenario
that assumed that the drought had continued
unabated until 2015.
Panelists included John Keys;
Kay Brothers, the Deputy
General Manger of the Southern Nevada Water
Authority; Pat Shea, a former
director with the Bureau of Land Management;
Bruce Newcomb, the Idaho
Speaker of the House; Dan Keppen
of the Family Farm Alliance;
John Leshy; Karl Dreher,
Director of the Idaho Department of Water
Resources; Pat Ford, Executive
Director of Save the Salmon; Jim Waldo,
who helped former Washington Gov. Gary Locke on
numerous water issues; John Echohawk,
the Executive Director of the Native American
Rights Fund; and Michael Bogart,
a key negotiator in the Nez Perce agreement in
The discussion was fascinating. Not
surprisingly, panelists were strong advocates of
approaches that underpinned their own values and
If there was one over-arching theme which
emerged, however, it was what was stated by John
Keys: "There is no single part of the water
industry that can do it by itself. Everyone of
us has to first honor the involvement that other
parties have and then craft a solution so that
we have the balance I talked about yesterday…"
It was up to Cecil Andrus to remind everyone
though, that "it's time those of us in this room
and other rooms do a good job that we brag about
BEFORE we are forced to. If we do that, we're
going to relieve a lot of heartburn, and some
lawyers won't make as quite much money, but
we'll move along a lot faster than we've been
Therein lies the trick. Can we move towards what
Keys and others have called cooperative
conservation without the threat of a major
ecological or legal crisis before us?
Editor's Note: A complete
transcript of the conference as well as a
conference white paper will be posted on the
website sometime in July.
John Freemuth is a
senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public
Policy in Boise, Idaho.