[env-trinity] New Players Emerge in Western Water War
jallen at trinitycounty.org
Wed Jan 18 09:15:28 PST 2006
New Players Emerge in Western Water War
By Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post
Monday, January 16, 2006 6:21 PM CST
BIG SKY, Mont. -- A hundred years after the city of Los Angeles and San
Fernando Valley farmers battled neighboring Owens Valley for control
over water from the Owens River, there's a new kind of water war in the
>From Montana to Arizona to California and beyond, alliances of
environmentalists, fishermen and city dwellers are challenging the
West's traditional water barons -- farmers and ranchers -- who have long
controlled the increasingly scarce resource.
The West largely depends on its rivers and snowmelt for its water
supply, and a combination of recent urban growth and prolonged drought
has resulted in demand greatly outstripping supply. Under longstanding
federal and state policies reinforced by farmers' historic political
clout, agriculture has laid claim to about 80 percent of those scant
resources -- at rock-bottom prices -- on the grounds that water is
critical to the survival of crops and livestock.
Now, however, other users are arguing that this system is unfair,
uneconomical and a threat to many delicate ecosystems, and not only in
Farmers typically pay less for their water than nearby cities: In
California's Central Valley, they get their water from the federal
government at below-market prices, a subsidy that amounts to $416
million a year, according to the Environmental Working Group, an
advocacy organization. And unlike cities getting the same water, farmers
are paying back the cost of the region's giant irrigation system without
In areas such as the Pacific Northwest's Klamath River Basin, commercial
fishermen and Indian tribes say agriculture is depriving them of the
water they need to maintain the local salmon fishery and a way of life.
Near Yuma, Ariz., alfalfa and cotton farmers in the Wellton-Mohawk
Irrigation and Drainage District are concerned that the rapid growth of
Phoenix will threaten their water rights. "There's fear," said Robert
Glennon, a University of Arizona professor of law and public policy.
Steve Owens of the state's Department of Environmental Quality sees
water conservation as "probably the number-one environmental issue"
facing the state.
Such battles have spread nationwide as groups from Florida to Nebraska
squabble over farmers' voracious water use, but nowhere are the stakes
higher than in the fast-growing West. Rivers and streams there occupy
just 5 percent of the land but sustain nearly half of the fish and
In the past, when the competition for water was less intense, Western
cities often cut deals with agricultural interests to build massive
projects to supply both. But rapidly growing municipal needs -- the West
is now home to nine of the 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas -- mean
urban areas now are in direct competition with ranchers and farmers.
"To me, this is deja vu all over again," said John Vincent, a
commissioner in Montana's Gallatin County who served for 16 years in the
state legislature and two years as Bozeman's mayor. "It's a new phase of
the water wars. The players have changed."
In some cases, such as Big Sky's Poorman Creek, compromise turned out to
be easy. Montana rancher Eddie Grantier, who raises 100 head of cattle
on the ranch his parents founded, conceded that the ranch had wasted
water for years, ultimately drying up a tributary of the Blackfoot River
used by vulnerable bull and cutthroat trout swimming upstream to spawn.
After officials from the advocacy group Trout Unlimited raised $110,000
to install a sprinkler irrigation system, pump and pipeline, and a
screen to keep fish from getting trapped in the intake pipes, Grantier
threw in $20,000 worth of his own work to conserve water.
Since the project was completed last year, the creek has been carrying
nearly 7,000 gallons more per minute, a flow equivalent to Washington's
Rock Creek. Grantier, whose ranch lies just west of the Continental
Divide, said the new irrigation system allows him to grow twice as much
hay and has not interfered with cattle raising.
"It didn't make a problem for me," he said.
Laura Ziemer, who directs Trout Unlimited's Montana Water Project, said
this success shows that even modest changes in water use can make a
major difference for wildlife.
"Every river has been drained within an inch of its life," said Ziemer,
adding that every native trout species in the West is either on the
federal endangered species list or being considered for it. "We're going
to make a small difference in key pieces of stream. ... We had to, in
essence, create a water right for fish."
But for every feel-good story such as Poorman Creek, there's at least
one Klamath Basin. The 250-mile-long Klamath River flows from Oregon's
Upper Klamath Lake to the Pacific on the northern California coast.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which has the job of allocating
Klamath water among competing interests, has been at the center of a
seesaw battle over the irrigation needs of agriculture and the
preservation of fish species prized by sportsmen and local tribes.
When the government deprived Klamath farmers of about three-fourths of
their regular water allotment in 2001 to help sustain two species of
endangered sucker fish -- lake-dwellers that migrate upstream in the
Klamath -- farmers howled. The next year, the government allocated more
water for farmers, and tens of thousands of salmon and steelhead trout
died from disease and heat strain.
Agriculture has long been a potent political force in local, state and
federal politics, both because farmers remain an American icon and
because they are well organized and have close contacts with lawmakers.
Not surprisingly, Congress and the executive branch have historically
sided with farmers. States usually doled out water rights, and the
federal government funded massive engineering projects to make
Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific
bureau, said his agency has no choice but to give farmers in
California's Central Valley a better deal on water than their urban
neighbors. "The law does not allow us to charge interest" to farmers, he
Like Congress, the Bush administration has championed agriculture's
"The administration is not paying attention to the laws of
biodiversity," said Glen Spain, the Northwest regional director for the
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "It's paying far
more attention to the laws of political expediency."
But Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., a third-generation farmer with a farm
35 miles north of Sacramento, said farmers already have made
"These farmers here have just about compromised to death up in the
Klamath Basin," Herger said, noting farmers have put in screens to
protect migrating fish and approved the removal of Chiloquin Dam to
increase water flow. "One thing you find out in a hurry is that
environmentalists do not compromise."
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who represents fishermen and Indian tribes
in the northern part of the state, has been pushing unsuccessfully to
provide $200 million over the next 12 years for conservation projects,
including lining and piping irrigation ditches to reduce water loss and
recycling irrigation water.
"I'm not saying you've got to stop farming and let the water go wherever
it wants to go." But, said Thompson, "you don't want to kill off all the
wildlife to promote farming."
Federal authorities have poured tens of millions into the region for
habitat conservation, but in October the San Francisco-based U.S. Court
of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected the government's new 10-year
regional water plan as environmentally inadequate.
Farming's water demands are becoming more contentious in the Southeast
and the Great Plains, as well. While the number of irrigated acres has
recently dipped nationwide, according to Agriculture Department
statistics, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska and the Corn Belt
have all increased irrigation since 1982.
Some environmentalists are concerned that even where water is relatively
plentiful, as in the Southeast, irrigation projects can harm valuable
habitat. Two advocacy groups are fighting proposed U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers irrigation projects along Arkansas's White River, arguing that
they are economically unjustified and could drain swamps that could be
sheltering the rare ivory-billed woodpecker.
In Tampa, the group Earthjustice is trying to block tomato farmers from
using so much ground water, citing evidence that salt water is intruding
inland at a rate of five inches a day.
In Nebraska, federal and state authorities are struggling to balance
corn and soybean growers' use of water from the Platte River against the
needs of about 220 endangered wild whooping cranes, who depend on the
river on their twice-yearly migrations.
But farmers and ranchers say critics fail to appreciate how they help
society. Jim Beecher in California's Central Valley, who receives
subsidized water to irrigate his 8,500 acres of cotton, lettuce,
tomatoes and vineyards, said cheap water helps protect the country's
"Ultimately, Americans need to ask themselves if they want to be
dependent on feeding themselves, or be dependent on the importation of
food the way we're dependent on the importation of fuel," Beecher said.
Researcher Don Pohlman contributed to this report.
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