Whiskey is for Drinking and Water is for Fighting – Water in the American West

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We are now in the Sixth round of the World Water Forums.  This was the first time, however, that the United States took a substantial part in the Forum: yesterday marked the first time that a panel was devoted purely to American water practices.  The session was titled “Water in the American West:  150 Years of Adaptive Strategies.”  The panel consisted of:

  • John Tubbs – Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science (United States Department of the Interior)
  • Jo Ellen Darcy – Assistant Secretary (Army for Civil World)
  • Karen Fraser – Washington State Senator
  • Clayton Matt – Chief Executive Officer (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes)
  • Brian McPeek – Chief Operating Officer (The Nature Conservancy)
  • Edward Drusina – Commissioner (International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico — United States Section
  • Jim Peterson – President (Montana State Senate)

This panel focused on the American West because of geographical differences that yield strikingly different water distribution in this area than other parts of the US.  The “American West” is defined as that area west of the 100th meridian as noted on the map.  The panelists focused on this area because they hope that other countries who are facing water shortages can learn from the lessons that Americans have learned in the last 150 years.

John Tubbs started the discussion by stating, “The lack of moisture defines this story.”  The Rocky Mountains stop rain clouds from passing over into the plains on the east of the Rockies.  As a result, these areas are defined by desserts and canyons.  Regardless of these dry conditions, there are now approximately 105 million people living in this area.

The panelists discussed how Americans have historically entered into negotiations to use the rivers for irrigation, navigation, and hydropower.  In the past, there was little discussion about Native American tribes’ water rights and even less about environmental issues.  While there was not enough water left for tribal treaties and for fish and wildlife, unsurprisingly the goals for (white) human use were met.   Hydropower turbines were not designed to be fish friendly; dams cut off the natural migration of fish, resulting in plunging fish populations in western rivers.  In the present day, legislators are being more conscious about Native American’s interests and even discuss environmental issues from time to time.  According to Senator Fraser, the legislators are using these lessons and are engaged in significantly more respectful conversations with the other interest groups. “We’re doing more to try to balance all the competing interests,” she said.

Mr. McPeek from the Nature Conservancy stated that major structural changes in dams and turbines are unlikely. “Major changes in water law are also not likely,” he continued.  What are likely, however, are small tweaks in the system.  For example, Senator Fraser talked about moving dams to the sides of the river to allow for a natural slope to return to the river, thereby allowing fish to migrate.  Mr. Peterson discussed the “Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission” in Montana, which is a group that negotiates the division and apportionment of waters between the state and several Native American tribes.  It tries to settle its issues out of the court.  Mr. McPeek also commented that now the concept of shared risk from water mismanagement has arisen.  Water developers realize that the risks associated with changing a natural landscape drastically circle back to them and affect them as well.

It is questionable that this discussion would help nations facing water shortages.  The American West, although arid, has the ability to receive water from wetter areas through pipelines, such as Los Angeles, which pipes in water from hundreds of miles away.  Additionally, even if the members of the panel did not mention this, many citizens can afford to move to wetter landscapes to enable an easier lifestyle.

Furthermore, Americans’ consumption of water is excessive, making much of the water scarcity that plagues the West one of choice.  According to Water in the American West, Policy Report for the 6th World Water Forum, “Basic human needs (drinking, cooking, bathing, washing, and sanitation) require about 49 liters per person daily, but American households in many U.S. cities use far more, typically averaging 750 – 1140 liters daily.”  A significant amount of domestic water use in US’ arid regions is from Americans trying to grow lush lawns, gardens and golf courses in extremely unnatural areas, like Las Vegas.  It is jarring to fly over the West and see the desert abruptly transition to green golf courses or agricultural fields.  All this while the depletion of rivers and groundwater is acute.

While the stakeholder involvement and mediation processes are lessons well-learned, we must address overconsumption and unintelligent water uses in the US.  We have to ask difficult questions of whether building megacities in deserts is acceptable in a resource-restricted world.

4 thoughts on “Whiskey is for Drinking and Water is for Fighting – Water in the American West

    • You’re absolutely right Caroline. But, we can all motivate a change by changing our own habits now. Something small, like turning off the water as you shampoo/soap/shave, can go a long way. There’s also absolutely no reason why we should be using potable water to water our lawns and flush our toilets. But, that change needs to come from the municipality.

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  2. I believe it’s going to be a while until water becomes a mainstream topic of discussion for conservation for America. Clean drinking water is currently so accessible and affordable that it doesn’t get the same media attention as oil or natural gas. Until America can “feel it in the pocketbook”, we are going to have a hard time convincing the public to conserve water in a more effective manner.

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