No End in Sight to Water Wars, Experts Sayby Dave Wilkins, Staff Writer
Capital Press - September 20, 2002
TWIN FALLS, Idaho -- People in the American West have always fought over water it seems.
Those conflicts are likely to continue as greater demands are placed on resources, experts said during a conference last week organized by the Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment.
Urban areas want more water for growing populations. Environmental groups demand more water for fish recovery, and recreationists want their share.
Often caught in the middle are the farmers who depend on water to irrigate their crops.
With episodes like the Klamath Basin water curtailment fresh in their minds, it's no wonder that farmers are feeling uncertain about their future, said Craig Smith, executive dircetor of the Family Farm Alliance.
"The uncertainty we have now is one of the major impediments to irrigated agriculture," Smith said.
Even food processors are wondering what's going to happen from year to year and whether they'll have adequate supplies of raw product, Smith said.
"We have to fight for the certainty that we need," he said. "Lack of certainty is the major problem we face today."
Farmers are often swimming against the political tide in their efforts to assure adequate irrigation supplies, Smith said.
It may be politically unpopular, but farmers should be talking about building new dams, he said. The topic is so politically charged, however, that whenever it comes up for public discussion, "people start running for cover," Smith said.
Irrigators also need to expose the flaws in the flow augmentation argument, he said.
Science has shown that flow augmentation doesn't work, but political pressures keeps it alive, he said.
"We absolutely know that flow augmentation doesn't work," Smith said. "It's wasted water."
Solutions to water conflicts in the West are possible, but people need to recognize the value of irrigated agriculture and honor the commitments upon which investments have been made, Smith said.
Most of the demand for water today isn't for more irrigation, said Ron Carlson, Snake river Water Master.
"Most of the vocal demands are calling for more water for recreation, aesthetics, fish and wildlife," Carlson said.
All water diverted from the Snake River between Ashton and Milner Dam is diverted between May and October each year, Carlson said.
Yet, "fishing in the Snake River has never been better, water fowl numbers have never been higher, and water-based recreation has become world renowned," he said.
Population growth, even in rural states like Idaho, poses challenges for irrigation projects, participants said.
Carlson said Idaho's population has increased 50 percent since he became Snake River Watermaster 25 years ago.
Some irrigation districts that have traditionally delivered water only for crops have gradually shifted more of their operations toward pressurized irrigation systems for homeowners as more farmland has been converted to subdivisions.
But that hasn't meant a reduction in total water usage, said Dan Steenson, and attorney who represents the Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District in the Boise Valley.
Many homeowners like to keep their lawns green as long as possible and their water usage extends beyond the normal crop-growing season.
"There actually hasn't been the kind of dropoff you might expect when ag lands are covered with streets and roof tops," Steenson said.
With the rapidly growing population in the Boise Valley, conflicts between the irrigation district -- which manages an extensive system of open canals, ditches, drainages -- and homeowners and municipalities has also increased, Steenson said.
"An irrigation drainage becomes a 'creek' and that becomes the nameplate for the new subdivision," he said.
(bluefish notes: At a cost of $2-3 million per year, the Bureau of Reclamation purchases 427,000 acre-feet of water from "willing-sellers" to increase water flow through the Lower Snake River reservoirs. The effect of "flow augmentation" on salmon survival is open to debate.)
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