Dams no longer Bureau of Reclamation priority
Future water use in the West begins and ends with irrigated agriculture.
"The bottom line for us is the economic security of the country," said John Keys, commissioner of the Bureau of the Reclamation, during a conference on the future of water in the West Tuesday.
"Irrigated agriculture has the senior water rights in the West,"
he said. "We have to protect those rights and livelihoods."
Keys, a 34-year veteran of the BuRec, had retired from the service, but more than two years ago he was asked by the Bush administration to return and head up water resource management for the Interior Department.
He spoke Tuesday morning during the latest in a series of consulting conferences around the West sponsored by the Department of the Interior and hosted by the BuRec.
Keys said that one of the criticisms for the conferences was that not enough was being said about building new storage facilities.
"Conservation has to be addressed first before we begin looking at new storage," he said.
But new storage was on the mind of many.
Nancy Schlepp, one of the panelists and representing the Montana Farm Bureau, said that "with Montana being the starting point for headwaters for several major rivers, it is important to realize that once the water leaves the state, it is gone."
She argued that increased storage would greatly mitigate the competing use problems, which would benefit people, conservation, wildlife and agriculture.
Jim Flowers, manager of the Heart Mountain Irrigation District in Powell, Wyo., has urged BuRec to ease hurdles that even modest projects must now clear before construction.
Another panelist, Laura Ziemer, of Bozeman representing Trout Unlimited, said "it is in everyone's interest to spend more time managing limited water resources and less time in court."
Ziemer has been instrumental in expanding Trout Unlimited's water leasing program through legislative actions and the completing of conversions from irrigation water rights to in-stream flow rights.
Sharp increases in population growth in the West have increased the demand for water for municipalities at the same time drought has desiccated agriculture for the past five or six years.
Against a backdrop of the current drought monitor map of the West, Keys said the problem with drought is that when it goes away, people forget about it. He referred to the situation on the East Coast a year ago, then in a drought.
"I can count on one hand the times I've heard the word reservoir this year," he said. A year ago he heard the word every day.
"The attention has to stay there," he said. "It (drought map) gets worse every time I look at it."
As for solutions, the DOI has a plan, but Keys cautioned: "There is no bag full of money, no one answer, no one plan for everyone. "We'll need to work together."
The plan is called Water 2025: Preventing Crisis and Conflict in the West. The DOI proposed several principles and tools to mitigate the realities of fighting over water, now and the future.
The goal of Water 2025 is two-fold: Provide a basis for public discussion of the realities of water use in the West; and set up a framework to identify the problems, solutions and plans of action as the DOI works with states, tribes, local governments and the private sector.
The conference featured three panel presentations throughout the day focusing on approaches to resolving water issue conflicts, the perspectives of local state and tribal governments and getting beyond crisis management.
One example of a recent conflict cited by Keys centered in Klamath Falls, Ore. Two and a half years ago, a water shortage forced a judicial order that gave farmers' water allocations to fish and that created a confrontation.
Even now, they're still struggling. A sign attached to one of the headgates in Klamath Falls said: "No Water, No Life, No Livelihood."
Keys said the bureau wants to be ready for the next Klamath Falls.
That is the goal of Water 2025.
The Bureau of Reclamation was formed from the passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902. One of the first projects completed under the act was the Huntley Diversion Project east of Billings. It was operating in 1906.
The Huntley Diversion Dam is one of several along the Yellowstone River.
Keys said Tuesday the bureau's focus has changed over the years, but not its goals. In 1982, Congress in a major revision of the law, increased the number of acres eligible for subsidized water from BuRec projects from 160 acres to 960 acres.
"We still build dams, mostly replacing old ones," he said. "But they are not our emphasis. Now we mange water to serve as many as we can."
Comments on the projects can be mailed to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Water 2025, 1849 C St. N.W., Washington D.C. or by visiting its Web site at www.usbr.gov/water2025/feedback.cfm.
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