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Wrangling water

International water experts and officials gather in Boise
to discuss rising demands and decreasing supplies
By John Freemuth
for Headwaters News

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 several goals.

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 concerns.

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 spirited discussion.

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 other.

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 groundwater recharge.

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 metaphor.

... "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 moving."

– 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 key issues.

He concluded that there was a crisis of management resulting form "bad institutions, bad governance, bad incentives and bad allocation of resources."

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 stark terms.

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 Europe.

The other view considers water as a right, belonging to no one, a "fundamental human right."

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 Boise users.

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 years.

He called for outright aid, rather than loans, to improve the situation in poorer regions of the world where cross-subsidy rates were not possible.

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 common problems.

Some panelists thought that the solution to Western drought issues was the creation of more storage capacity.
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 traditional agriculture.

Creative solutions also received much discussion, including

(1) paying farmers for their water and having them continue to farm, except in drought conditions where the water would be reallocated to urban needs;

(2) expanding the re-use of water; and

(3) water metering.

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 Idaho.

The discussion was fascinating. Not surprisingly, panelists were strong advocates of approaches that underpinned their own values and positions.

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 moving."

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 Center's website sometime in July.

John Freemuth is a senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise, Idaho.




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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