Western Water Policy: A New Vision - Looking to the Future -- Learning from the Past

(Note: Beware the 'politically correct' language contained herein. Please read carefully!)

A Critical Issues Publication from the Family Farm Alliance

Protecting and enhancing Western irrigated agriculture

Water is the key to the American West. No other commodity holds so much power, so much promise, and has the potential to cause so much conflict.

As the West has grown, water issues have become increasingly polarized. Some argue that society no longer needs irrigated agriculture in the West, and that we should simply reallocate the water historically used by farmers and give it to cities and the environment. Others insist that agricultural water users have no responsibility for addressing allocation issues, and that any changes in water use or management must always be resisted.

The Family Farm Alliance believes that solutions exist in the middle of these two extremes. It is possible for the West to continue to lead the world in agricultural production while finding ways to accommodate exploding urban growth and environmental needs. The solutions will not come easily. They will require visionary leadership and a firm commitment to a balanced, workable policy. But opportunities exist, if we are prepared to seize them.

Now is the time for a consistent and thoughtful federal water policy that looks to meet all of the needs of the region. The Family Farm Alliance believes the recommendations in this paper can form the basis for that policy.

Policy Recommendations

1. The overriding goal of federal water policy must be to provide certainty to all water users; agricultural, tribal, municipal, industrial and environmental, who are dependent on commitments made by the government.

2. When water laws and environmental laws conflict, balanced solutions that respect treaty and contractual obligations must be the goal.

3. State laws and institutions must be given deference in issues relating to water resource allocation, use, control and transfer. The best decisions on water issues happen at the state and local level.

4. Renewed and continued support for the development of new, environmentally sound, sources of water supply is essential. New water supplies must be developed if we want to solve environmental problems, allow for population growth and protect the economic vitality of the West.


A "politically correct" mindset seems to have become fashionable when it comes to Western water policy. That mind set assumes that the policies of the past, the policies that enabled the West to be settled and to flourish, have now outlived their usefulness and practicality. It is a belief that we no longer need to manage Western water resources in a manner that continues to encourage investment in agricultural production. And many times, it is also a mindset that believes that the continued development and use of Western water resources for agriculture is inconsistent with the nation's goals to protect and steward the environment.

The Family Farm Alliance strongly believes that with visionary leadership, we can find balanced solutions to today's issues. We believe it can be done without destroying the successes of the past. The policies outlined in this paper utilize the lessons of the past to lay a new foundation for the future.

In developing a forward-looking water policy, historical context is important. Only by examining the efforts of the past can a realistic vision for the West be formulated. Expectations must be grounded in reality. Lessons must be learned from experiences to date. Future decisions must respect prior commitments and existing obligations.

Western water policy, over the past one hundred years, is one of the great success stories of the modern era. Millions of acres of arid Western desert have been transformed into the most efficient and productive agricultural system in the world.

The Bureau of Reclamation operates about 180 projects in the 17 Western States. Reclamation projects provide agricultural, household, and industrial water to about one-third of the population of the American West. About 5 percent of the land area of the West is irrigated, and Reclamation provides water to about one-fifth of that acreage (in 1992, some 9,120,000 acres). Reclamation is a major American generator of electricity. In 1993, Reclamation had 56 power plants on-line and generated 34.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. All of this has been done for a total federal investment of $11 billion. (source: Bureau of Reclamation web site)

A 1998 study by Dr. Darryl Olsen and Dr. Houshmand Ziari, estimates the impact of irrigated agriculture in the Western states to be $60 billion annually (direct and indirect income). Using Reclamation's estimate that 20% of irrigated agriculture receives water from Reclamation projects, then the annual return to the economy from the $11 billion investment in the federal system is $12 billion annually. In other words, the economy of the United States receives a greater than 100% return each year on this investment.

Irrigated agriculture isn't a good investment, it is an incredible investment. It continues to be a leading economic driver in the West. Now is not the time to retreat from our investment. Now is the time to enact sound policies that encourage continued investment in irrigated agriculture.

However, the successes of the past have not come without a cost. The incredible expansion of the population, physical modifications made to rivers and streams, and agricultural practices themselves have impacted the environment. It is these impacts that are now causing many to question the policies of the past.

Resolving these issues without destroying what we worked so hard to achieve is the challenge that we all face. But to be successful, we must face them together. No resolution will be found unless we find a way to balance all competing needs.

We believe that within the policies outlined in this paper lay the foundation upon which to build for the future. It will be a foundation that allows for resolution of significant conflicts in a way that supports continued growth of irrigated agriculture.

Policy 1. - Certainty Is Critical To All Water Users

State and federal law regarding the allocation and administration of water were developed to provide long term, certain, predictable and affordable supplies of water to all users. Without some degree of certainty, no investment will be made in the future.

When certainty is threatened, water users become entrenched. Solutions to critical issues cannot be developed in an environment where the parties feel exposed and vulnerable.

This is true of all water users whether they are urban, industrial, tribal or agricultural. Uses for environmental purposes are also dependent on long term, stable commitments.

If the certainty that is intended to be provided under existing laws is eroded, the unavoidable consequences will be:

An increase in conflict between stakeholders

Water prices will escalate and irrigated agriculture, along with wildlife habitat, will be "dried up" to obtain water for urban growth

Agriculture lands that surround urban areas will be lost, which often means that the most effective mechanism for preserving open space is eliminated

Destabilization of the market in water rights, which inhibits voluntary transfers to the highest and best use of the resource

Impairment of local economies that are largely dependent on irrigated agriculture and secondary adverse impacts to businesses, local governments and schools

Water law does and will change. However that change must respect the promises of the past, while addressing the reality of the future. A new vision is required.

Policy 2. - Resolving Environmental Issues Requires Balance

Environmental enhancement and mitigation programs are competing for existing sources of water. Across the West, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Interior, have attempted to redirect water to environmental uses without adequate public process or regard for prior commitments. These actions have caused major conflicts, costly lawsuits and delayed benefits for endangered species and the environment.

There is a better way. Solutions to these complex issues can be found by reasoned, well intentioned people. We must recognize that while it is important to include all viewpoints in the discussion, the holders of water rights have far more at risk than most other parties at the table. They also have far more to offer when it comes to actually resolving issues.

Resolutions to water conflicts should proceed from an understanding that existing water rights are not "part of the problem," but are instead, a starting point for future solutions. Rather than threaten existing water users with dire consequences or federal mandates if issues are not resolved, the federal government should use its considerable resources to offer legitimate incentives to right holders to develop solutions to allocation issues.

Moreover, other "stakeholders" must recognize that when a water user takes the steps necessary to create or procure a valid appropriation right, he or she is awarded a valuable property right that cannot be taken or diminished without just compensation.

Water users care about the environment. Creative, successful solutions can be found by motivated, unthreatened parties. Incentives that create reasons to succeed will do more good for the environment in a shorter period of time than actions that rely on threats of government intervention.

Policy 3. - State Law Must Be Given Deference In Water Allocation Issues

The best decisions on water issues are made at the local level. The federal government has repeatedly recognized this fact. In 1952, Congress passed the McCarran Amendment. This law specifically waives the sovereign immunity of the United States in matters that pertain to state water right adjudications. This system can be frustrating for federal agencies that may not have the patience or desire to follow state law.

Solutions to conflicts over the allocation and use of water resources must begin with a recognition of the traditional deference to state water allocation systems. Federal agencies must acknowledge that they are required to adjudicate water rights for federal purposes according to state law and abide by state decrees defining both federal and nonfederal rights.

Recently, in many areas of the West, federal agencies have attempted to redirect water to solve environmental issues, without regard for state law or prior commitments. These actions cause far more problems than they resolve. Environmental issues must be resolved through a cooperative process that respects state water law.

A simple commitment by federal agencies to work within the framework of existing appropriative systems instead of attempting to fashion solutions which circumvent current water rights allocation and administration schemes would form the foundation for eliminating the gridlock that now paralyzes federal water management decisions.

Such a commitment would encourage states and water right holders to proactively address water allocation issues by eliminating the now omnipresent fear that a subsequent federal mandate will either undermine local efforts to address an allocation issue or suddenly require unexpected additional reallocations of water which render local cooperation impossible.

Policy 4. - Developing New Water Supplies is Often the Answer to Tough Problems

Water allocation battles are increasingly being caused because we are forced to make false choices. Conservation is often seen as the only solution to water supply issues. However, conservation does not work in many cases, especially where the desire is to increase in-stream flow. Water that is conserved tends to be used by the next junior downstream appropriator and the flow remains the same.

In most areas of the West, water resources are available and waiting to be developed. However, the policies of the federal government make development of that water nearly impossible. Water wars are being fought throughout the West simply because we have not had the vision to develop new, environmentally sound, sources of water. The federal government must adopt a policy of supporting new projects to enhance water supplies while encouraging state and local interests to take the lead in the implementation of those projects.

Local interests have shown enormous creativity in designing creative water development projects; for example, the Kern Water Bank in California has, in just three years of operation, stored over 500,000 acre-feet of flood water underground while providing increased wetlands habitat in its sinking basins, all without any negative environmental effect. While on stream storage should not be seen as unacceptable, off stream storage, groundwater banking, and countless other forms of water development should be encouraged as a matter of federal policy and law.


The time has come for new vision for Western water policy. It will be:

A vision that mandates strong leadership and a spirit of mutual respect A vision that sees solutions where today we only see problems A vision that rejects the easy but devastating politics of blame and division

This new vision builds on the successes of the past, while addressing the realities of today. It is a vision that sees irrigated agriculture as an integral part of the solution to many of today's most vexing issues.

By recognizing the value of irrigated agriculture; by creating an environment where an adequate degree of certainty exists; by respecting commitments upon which investments have been made and by following the basic principles outlined in this paper, we can together solve the water issues that today seem so insurmountable.

The Family Farm Alliance is committed to this renewed vision for federal water policy. We stand ready to assist the federal government, and specifically a new Administration, in reworking federal water policy to create an environment conducive to resolving water issues currently plaguing the West. Together, we can secure a future for all Westerners to enjoy for generations to come.