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Federal government seeks water role

Anne Knowles

The federal government has identified hot spots for water conflicts including northern Nevada and is formulating plans to help by promoting new technologies and conservation ideas.

The Department of Interior earlier this month released “Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West,” a report that assesses the potential of water wars in 17 western states and calls for the creation of a Western Water Initiative using $11 million from the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2004 budget.

The money would be used, according to the report, to promote conservation, collaboration, improved technology and greater coordination.

“We want to spur some thinking and encourage people to look at some of these options,” said Bennett Raley, the administration’s point person for Western water issues, with the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.

“The Secretary was very interested in identifying tools that could be used within existing resources.”

Raley said the work is a “policy level effort,” not designed to undermine local authority when it comes to water.

He said in areas such as northern Nevada, where the federal government has a long history of water involvement, the department will look to parties it is already working with, such as reclamation and wildlife.

The Truckee Carson Irrigation District, for one, would welcome the help, despite its sometimes antagonistic relationship with the federal government.

“We always welcome stuff like this,” said Ernie Schank, chairman,TCID.

“Our project is 100 years old.We’ve maintained it and improved it but our resources are limited.”

Schank said he had just returned from Washington where he met with Interior officials about the report and plans.TCID sent the department some proposals for upgrades to its systems, including lining canals and further automating its system.

“The purpose is to be more efficient with water use,” Schank.

That’s exactly the kind of work the government says it wants to support.

In addition to canal construction, the report specifies the use of water banking to help conserve water, and cites examples such as programs in northern Colorado and California where farmers sell water on a short-term basis to municipalities.

Water banking is not widely done in northern Nevada.

“It has been talked about and tried in, I think, 1994, 95,” said John Erwin, manager, water resources, Truckee Meadows Water Authority.

“Some of those ideas were floated during the last drought.”

The report concedes that water banking is often a “source of concern” to farmers and towns, but contends the idea can help mitigate conflicts.

The report also highlights collaboration.

Commenting on lengthy litigation that can delay water solutions, the report says, “The Department of Interior is committed to working with states, tribes, and interested stakeholders to find ways to accelerate these proceedings in order to protect existing federal and non-federal rights.” The report also advocates the use of new technologies, specifically desalination.

It says work is being done by private entities, academics and state and federal agencies, and that a water desalination research road map is now under review by the National Research Council.

In the 1960s, the federal government had an Office of Saline Water, according to Tom Donnelly, executive vice president of the National Water Resources Association, a federation of state water interests and a lobbyist in Arlington, Va.

But the office was abolished when the technology appeared to be infeasible.

Since then, the price of desalination has come way down.

“It used to be about $2,000 per acre foot,” said Donnelly.

“Now I think it’s down to something like $600 per acre foot, which may be expensive for agriculture but some metropolitan areas would jump at that.”

Donnelly said the government is trying to determine its role in desalination and, in fact, in water issue in general.

“I think what they’re trying to do is prevent another Klamath,” said Donnelly, referring to the area in Oregon wracked by bitter disputes over agricultural water rights.

“There is serious potential conflict elsewhere and I think they want to come to some cooperation before we’re hit with another train wreck like Klamath.”

The Department of Interior isn’t alone.

A bill now in a committee of the House of Representatives would create a national water commission.

The commission would project water supplies, review current water management programs and make recommendations for a comprehensive water strategy, according to a description from the House Transportation Committee.

It would produce interim reports and a final report within three years at which time it would be disbanded.

The bill was proposed last session but was opposed by NWRA, for one.

“We’ve gone through this before with a very partisan commission under the Clinton administration,” said Donnelly.

“You could fill a room with the volumes they put out, but it was so skewed.”

But NWRA worked with Rep.

John Linder (R-Georgia), the bill’s sponsor, to craft legislation that avoids some partisan pitfalls.

NWRA now supports it.

“They’ve done it before.

The problem is it’s done under one administration and then another comes along and it falls by the wayside,” said TCID’s Schank.

“As long as it’s bipartisan and not used for political purposes then I would support it.”