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Stretching the West's Water

June 10, 2003

The federal government launched its first big effort to harness the rivers of the American West one century ago, in western Nevada. The nearly forgotten Newlands Project began making widespread settlement possible by moving the water to vast dry, barren areas opened to homesteading. Subsequent projects were better known, including Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and California's multibillion-dollar Central Valley Project.

Federal water planners a century ago gave little thought to the needs of salmon, or to the day when all the rivers would not be enough.

Today, shortage is the norm in most of the West. Think of the battle last year along the California-Oregon border over the Klamath River, with the Bush administration ruling that farmers could have more of its drought-reduced water. River levels fell further and migrating salmon died by the thousands. Since that disastrous introduction, the administration has wised up.

The Interior Department and the Bureau of Reclamation have developed a plan that will make them more active managers of the West's stressed water resources. It's not flashy -- nothing so dramatic as a big dam. But the effort called "Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West" can significantly stretch the West's water supply and resolve conflicts that prevent the most efficient use of water.

Water 2025 calls for better conservation, increased efficiency and continued development of water sales and transfers to move water from farms to the cities. The bureau also pledged to work cooperatively with water districts to settle disputes.

A Water 2025 outline released by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton cites the successful collaboration between the East Bay Municipal Utility District and Sacramento-area water districts over two decades to sustainably divert water from the Sacramento River. Alas, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and others that divert Sacramento River water to the south have sued repeatedly to block the East Bay project on unsubstantiated claims that its small diversion would cause environmental damage to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The bureau should oppose the latest spurious lawsuit.

The Water 2025 outline also commends the federal Colorado-Big Thompson Project in the Denver area, which for 50 years has made possible the leasing of farmers' irrigation water to growing cities in that region. The paperwork involved is little more than a postcard.

If Colorado can do this, why not California? Somehow California must liberate itself from old water feuds and develop the calmer tools Norton has proposed.

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