In regions across U.S., water use is hot issue : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

In regions across U.S., water use is hot issue

By BILL LAMBRECHT Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau 08/26/2001 06:02 AM

WASHINGTON - In southern Oregon, 5,000 protesters rallied last week around a massive empty bucket, a symbol of the water crisis that has engulfed the region.

In Missouri, a newly minted coalition of farmers, barge interests and business groups threatened a suit to block a government proposal to alter the flow of the Missouri River.

Meanwhile, in the Southeast, negotiators from Georgia, Florida and Alabama worked against a deadline to craft a landmark water-sharing agreement. Failure could mean that a judge will divvy up the water from rivers that have been depleted by urban sprawl.

The actions in separate regions of the country told a story of heightened tensions over water and new attempts, sometimes rancorous, to share an increasingly precious resource.

"There are many concerns and even jealousy. Everybody worries that somebody's going to steal their water," said Robert M. Hirsch, the government's chief water scientist.

Hirsch is associate director of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department agency that monitors the quantity and the quality of the nation's water.

He keeps tabs on the conflicts over water scarcity that are erupting around the country. "The level of conflict over water that we usually associate with the West is now occurring around the country," he said, speaking in his suburban Washington office.

In parts of the country, people are rapidly depleting ground water that has been around since the Ice Age, Hirsch said.

Pumping from aquifers, he said, "is no different than gold mining or coal mining."

"But people are beginning to ask whether we should continue to do that. Or might it be better to save some of that water for the future."

Sources of friction

Around the world, water is growing scarcer. The International Water Management Institute predicted this month that by 2025, nearly one-third of the world's people will live in regions that face severe water scarcity.

Few Americans have experienced such scarcity. But concerns have increased as global temperatures have risen in recent years. In nearly every trouble spot, Hirsch sees competition from the same forces - farmers, cities and conservationists.

Farmers want river water for irrigation, which has enabled them to turn parched acreage in the West and High Plains into productive land.

Cities and towns need the water for people to drink and factories to operate. In many places, those needs are accelerating because of population growth.

Meanwhile, conservationists increasingly demand that the water stay in rivers to provide more natural conditions for wildlife. Their case has been strengthened by the Endangered Species Act, which has turned the Fish and Wildlife Service into a police agency dedicated to the survival of fish and birds.

Underlying the new conflicts, according to Hirsch, are values that are changing as Americans look differently than they once did at their rivers.

That is the case along the Missouri River, he says. Dam operations begun more than 50 years ago were designed to reduce flooding and enable barges to ferry grain on the lower stretch of the river. Back then, few people understood that deepening and narrowing the river would destroy its backwaters and therefore the breeding ground for fish and birds.

But in recent years, the old ways of river management have been attacked relentlessly by conservationists and the Fish and Wildlife Service. And soon the Army Corps of Engineers will decide whether to alter the river's flow to create favorable surroundings for the pallid sturgeon and two species of birds.

The state of Missouri has fought the flow changes successfully so far. The administration of President George W. Bush instructed the corps to drop plans to endorse flow changes, which it had intended to do this week.

Missouri officials point to their fear of losing water to upstream states. But Hirsch is skeptical about that claim.

"I don't see an overall scarcity in Missouri; there's plenty of water for anything that Missouri might ever conceive of doing from a cities or agriculture standpoint. This is a question of valuing navigation versus valuing fish and other species."

Great Lakes sinking

Worries about the future of one of the great freshwater repositories on Earth have mounted as the water levels have dropped. In three years, the levels in the Great Lakes have declined about three feet - the most precipitous drop in more than a generation.

The decline triggered an initiative this summer by governors in states bordering the five Great Lakes to cut back on the diversion of water. The governors, joined by their counterparts from Canada, voted to look closely at requests by small communities for even tiny diversions.

St. Louisans have reason to be interested in the lakes' decline: About 1 billion gallons of water diverted daily from Lake Michigan ends up in the Mississippi River via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Illinois River.

The Great Lakes Governors Council is especially concerned about proposals to transport water to other regions of the country and even abroad. Three years ago, Canadian entrepreneurs raised eyebrows along the border by winning a permit to ship Lake Superior water to Asia in tankers.

The province of Ontario eventually rescinded the permit after many complaints.

At least one proposal to transfer water remains alive. Among its assignments from the governors, the Great Lakes Commission is conducting research to determine how such proposals must be handled legally in lieu of liberalized international trade rules that might permit water exports.

"We need to take threats of water diversion very seriously," said Michael Donahue, executive director of the commission. "Water is a fundamental necessity of life, and water flows uphill toward money."

Gerald E. Galloway, who heads the International Joint Commission, believes that large-scale diversions might not be an immediate threat because of their cost. His U.S.-Canadian agency resolves disputes that involve water shared between the two countries.

Nonetheless, Galloway feels that attention to the Great Lakes' plummeting volume is merited. "There is no surplus of water in the Great Lakes," he said, summing up a report by his commission earlier this year.

"People are realizing that water is very precious and that we need to be able to deal with it in a constructive and reasoned way."

New alliances

The 16-year-old Great Lakes Governors Council is among the organizations trying to come to grips with water problems in nontraditional ways.

Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, in partnership with the Interior Department, are collaborating on a plan to deal with increasing scarcity along the Platte River, which flows eastward from the Colorado Rockies.

Their task took on new urgency last month when regulators in Nebraska shut off irrigation water to 72 farms because of a scarcity of water in the Platte.

The circumstances resemble those along the Missouri: Participants in what is being called the Platte River Cooperative Agreement are searching for ways to manage the river so as to preserve several endangered species, among them the whooping crane.

These days, the volume of the river is just one-fourth of what it once was because of irrigation and other diversions, said the Nebraska Wildlife Federation's Duane Hovorka, who has taken part in the negotiations. As a result, the size of the flock of the cranes stopping in Nebraska while migrating from the Gulf Coast to Canada is less than 200.

"The way the river flows now, the birds either are exposed to coyotes and other predators or we put stress on them because they aren't able to rest and refuel for the remainder of their trip," he said.

Failing to find solutions, the Nebraskans and the other participants have extended their work until 2003 - a luxury that states in the Southeast don't have.

By Sept. 13, Georgia, Florida and Alabama hope to finish water negotiations that could collapse if no agreement is reached. The talks are occurring during the eighth extension of a negotiation that began in 1998.

What began as a concern about the enormous appetite for water in the Atlanta metropolitan area has evolved into an important experiment in planning for the needs of an entire region. That includes managing the flows of several rivers, chiefly the Chattahoochee and the Flint.

Bob Kerr, Georgia's chief negotiator, explained, "We're looking at a contract here in the order of 30-50 years, and there are so many things we don't know. We don't know how much water there will be. We don't know what global warming is going to do. Everybody wants certainty in what is, in fact, a very uncertain future."

Northwest challenge

No water problem in the nation has generated more emotion than the scarcity at Klamath Falls, Ore., near the California border.

Since the Interior Department shut off irrigation water to 1,400 farms in April to provide water that protects fish, Klamath Falls has become a rallying point for critics of the Endangered Species Act. The resolve displayed by Interior Secretary Gale Norton in enforcing the 1973 law during the Oregon dispute has surprised critics who had expected efforts by her to dismantle it.

But the arrival of truck convoys last week bringing food and supplies to support the farmers at a "Freedom Day" rally provided more evidence that the conflict will not end at the end of this year's growing season.

Likewise, the decisions looming ahead are more complex than preserving the endangered suckerfish and making sure that the Klamath Indian tribe has enough coho salmon for its needs.

Klamath tribal chairman Allen Foreman said in an interview that he was waiting for the Bush administration to craft a master plan to solve scarcity problems that threaten the entire Pacific Northwest.

Such a plan would, by necessity, involve ending commitments by the government since the early 1900s to provide water for farming.

"The federal government is who created this problem, and it really needs to step up to the plate and work toward long-term solutions," Foreman said.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 26, 2001


I am a firm believer in the current hue and cry that water will soon be more valuable than oil.

-- Nancy7 (, August 27, 2001.

The availability of water has always been taken for granted. I'm afraid the sleepy American people will not wake up to this crisis until it is very late in the game.

Desalinization is the only answer.

-- Uncle Fred (, August 27, 2001.

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