Tide of Sentiment Shifts in Water War
Traditional Favoritism to Agricultural Interests Is Challenged as Demand Increases
Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin
Published January 15, 2006
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 West. 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 the West.
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 interest.
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 wildlife species.
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.
Farmers' Political Clout
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 irrigation affordable. 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 said.
Like Congress, the Bush administration has championed agriculture's water claims. "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 concessions. "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.
A Question of Balance
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 economic security. "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.