Interior secretary working on ways to avoid water fights in the West

February 28, 2003

By John Heilprin, Associated Press

Washington, D.C. - Interior Secretary Gale Norton has begun developing ways to ease some of the perennial conflicts over water in the West before another potentially fierce wildfire season and more drought-related fights.

The department plans an $11 million program to see how to avoid water wars in areas such as Oregon's Klamath River, where farmers, commercial fishers, American Indian tribes, and environmental groups compete.

It will examine long-term problems and include research efforts on turning salt water into drinking water -- a process called desalinization -- so existing reservoirs can be used more effectively, Norton said Thursday.

"We hope that by enhancing the efficiency of agricultural water use and overcoming institutional obstacles, we can improve the availability of water," Norton said.

But she said no national approach can solve every regional problem. "It may take some new laws. It probably requires more agreements and resolution of outstanding disputes. In a lot of states, you have litigation that has been going on for decades to determine who owns what water," Norton said. "By resolving those disputes, you can move forward a lot more effectively."

In the Klamath Basin, Norton was criticized by environmentalists and Indian tribe leaders when she decided to divert water from the river to 1,400 farms. She later directed that more water temporarily be put back in the river to help fish. But chinook salmon died by the tens of thousands, a loss environmentalists and tribal fishers attributed to warming from dropped river levels due to water taken out for irrigation.

Since then, Norton said she has taken steps to create a water bank for farmers, fish, and grazing lands and a $5 million screen to protect fish from irrigation.

"Nobody knows who owns what," she said. "If everybody knew exactly how much water they were entitled to, the fishermen might enter into agreements with the farmers, pay the farmers to grow less water-intensive crops so there's more water for the fish. There's a wide variety of things that can be done, but they can done more easily if people understand what water they own. Right now the claims on the water far exceed the actual water."

The Interior Department also is monitoring a stretch of about 157 miles of the Rio Grande River and a tributary through central New Mexico that is designated a critical habitat for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

The river's woes has pitted the needs of the endangered fish against those of the state's largest city, Albuquerque. A federal judge last year ordered the Interior Department to release water stored for drinking and irrigation use to keep the river flowing, but then rain and the end of farming season helped out.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland, Calif., said it is important for the department to study ways that water can be used more efficiently. "It's not as simple as just allocating the water among human water users," he said. "One of the things we've learned on the Klamath is we have to have some committed water, or the environment will suffer."

Norton said she was told by the governors of Nebraska and Kansas that this year is shaping up to be among their driest years since the 1930s. With a persistent drought in many parts of the West, including marginal snowpacks from winter storms, Norton said she fears the upcoming wildfire season could be the worst yet.

Last year more than 7 million acres burned, and the government spent more than $1.5 billion fighting wildfires -- triple the amount originally budgeted.

"It is shaping up to be a difficult year," she said. "This year and the next two years are ones that pose tremendous problems with fire."

http://www.enn.com/news/2003-02-28/s_3049.asp