From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 5 - April 28, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Western water policy advocated

by Cat Urbigkit

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hosted a water forum, with western water issues in the spotlight. The Family Farm Alliance provided committee members with an overview of the issue and detailed recommendations. Pat O'Toole of Savery is the alliance's new president.

The Family Farm Alliance advocates for family farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts and allied industries in 17 western states with one goal: To ensure the availability of reliable, affordable irrigation water supplies to western farmers and ranchers.

The alliance believes that streamlined federal regulation and decision-making are the keys to sound western water policy and that wherever possible, meaningful delegation of decision-making authority and responsibility should be transferred to the local level, with less federal intrusion in basin issues.

The alliance pressed five main principles:

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.

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

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

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 growth and protect the economic vitality of the West.

Existing water supply infrastructure must be operated, maintained and modernized in the most cost-effective manner possible.

The alliance noted: "Water allocation battles are increasingly being caused because we are forced to make false choices. 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," the alliance stated in its testimony. "Water wars are being fought throughout the West simply because we have not had the vision to develop new, environmentally sound, sources of water."

Family Farm Alliance policy:


The retention of existing water supplies and the development of critically needed new supplies are of the utmost importance throughout the West. Supplies are already inadequate for the growing demands, but very few plans exist to develop supplies to meet increasing needs. At the federal level, we are told that the dam-building era is over. This is a short-sighted philosophy.

The fact that additional storage and other water development projects are necessary in order to meet anticipated needs is a simple reality, mandated by population and demographic information, which cannot be ignored.

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.


The existing procedures for developing additional supplies should also be revised to make project approval less burdensome. By the time project applicants approach federal agencies for authorization to construct multi-million dollar projects, they have already invested extensive resources toward analyzing project alternatives to determine which project is best suited to their budgetary constraints. However, current procedure dictates that federal agencies formulate another list of project alternatives which the applicant must assess, comparing potential impacts with the preferred alternative. These alternatives often conflict with state law. Opportunities should be explored to expedite this process and reduce the costs to the project applicant.


Conservation is often seen as the solution to water supply issues. While conservation is surely a tool that can assist in overcoming water supply problems, it cannot be viewed as the single answer to water shortages. Conserved water cannot realistically be applied to instream uses, as it will more likely be put to beneficial use by the next downstream appropriator or held in carryover storage for the following irrigation season. Moreover, mandated or "one size fits all" conservation programs are doomed to failure in light of the drastically different circumstances of water users across the West.

The alliance supports continued voluntary implementation of efficient water management practices and opposes mandatory or enforceable requirements for agricultural water use efficiency. Only practices that reduce irrecoverable losses actually increase the total useable water supply.


The transfer of water is one means of insuring that the West's most precious resource can be put to reasonable beneficial use to the maximum degree practicable. Although water transfers may, in certain years, alleviate water shortages, these resources alone can not meet the West's long-term water supply needs. Existing markets for the transfer of water can be used to shift water to meet new demands, and water markets can be expanded and made more efficient within the scope of state-adopted water rights schemes.

Water transfers, where appropriate, should adhere to certain fundamental principles grounded in the recognition that rights in water are both a property right and a community resource. The alliance believes that the actual water right holder - the owner of the water right - should determine the disposition of the water to be transferred.

All transfers should be conducted in accordance with state water law. There are struggles in several Western states involving transfers and how they relate to the beneficial use of water, including the transfer of water made possible through conservation or efficient water management.

The development of water markets should be left to stakeholders.

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