American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update on Western Water Policy (7-16-98)

The President's Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission, led by Chairman Denise Fort, recently issued a report on western water policy for the new millennium.  Water in the West: The Challenge for the Next Century focused on how increased population, decreased groundwater levels, social/political misunderstandings, and ruined river ecosystems have influenced the handling of water resources in the western states.  The Commission stated that in the future, agricultural uses of water should be transferred to the needs of growing urban areas.  Yet Mr. Patrick O'Toole, the only agricultural representative on the panel, wrote in his minority report that he cannot vote for the majority report because of "its insistent tone on accepting...the inevitable transition of water use from agriculture to other uses."  Other recommendations of the group include: a national campaign to rebuild river ecosystems, the development of new solutions to combat pollution from agricultural sources, the encouragement of sustainable use of water, and the preservation of commitments to tribal governments on water resources.

Title XXX of Public Law 102-575 authorized the President to conduct a review of the federal activities that influence water resources in the western US.  This order, combined with statistics showing that "nine out of the 10 most rapidly growing states in the nation are in the West and [that] the region is expected to add another 28 million residents by 2025," encouraged the formation of a  Commission in 1995.  Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt created this group of advisors which is comprised of various representatives.  In addition to Babbitt, the Commission includes the Secretary of the Army, eight presidentially appointed citizens, and 12 congressional members-- the Chairmen and Ranking Minority Members of the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power, the House Committee on Resources, and the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.  In order to meet the President's goal of proposing recommendations for the appropriate role of the federal government in western water management for the new millennium, the Commission organized research studies and symposiums and gathered expert testimony.

The report concluded that the preexisting conditions of unhealthy water quality and urban development would eventually strain Western water resources because of the expected population growth in such cities like Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas.  Part of the reason these problems have not been solved is because of the lack of political coordination and detailed policy.  To oversee water resources in the future, institutional changes must occur and the geographic and economic diversity of each city must be addressed through regional solutions.

In Principles of Water Management for the 21st Century, the Commission outlined several principles that will guide them in dealing with Western water resources.  The main principle for the Commission concerned the sustainable use of water and the guarantee that development did not exhaust water resources.  Furthermore, the Commission acknowledged that governmental cooperation at all levels is necessary to support national standards for water quality and to devise economic incentives (i.e., public and private partnerships) to achieve these goals.  In order to facilitate cooperation among governmental powers, agencies must uphold treaties with tribes and recognize tribal rights to water.  To make state and federal water programs more efficient, the Commission believed that groups should "organize or integrate water planning, programs, agencies, funding, and decision making around natural systems--the watersheds and river basins."  Decisions made concerning the natural system and the proper use of resources must be based on the best data, taking into account scientific, economic, and social values as well as including information from government and stakeholders.

In addition to the Principles for Water Management program, the Commission also supported the notion of creating a new governance structure for watersheds and river basins.  For the federal government, the new challenge is to encourage local participation and innovation among stakeholders and to formulate proposals that create a national policy of interagency coordination that helps federal agencies organize their programs throughout hydrologic regions.  The Commission held that federal resource agencies should be restructured, containing "regional flexibility, participation of all affected stakeholders in formulating joint programs to carry through shared objectives, and recognition that intensive interaction among federal, state, tribal, and local governmental entities and stakeholders is essential to design durable solutions."  To accomplish this task, federal agencies should coordinate their programs within river basins.  River basin forums can effectively communicate objectives, sources of funding, and budget organization from the basin level to local watershed agencies.  Specific recommendations include a basin trust fund, a new way of governing based on hydrologic systems, a connection with watershed councils, a reliance on adaptive management, a number of planned activities between federal and local government, and a detailed basin-level objective.

The Commission also addressed the problems of water quality and the aquatic ecosystem in the American West.  In general, the Commission approved of using ecological risk assessments to determine rivers in need of federal support for restoration.  Improving the aquatic ecosystem means not only enhancing water quality but also protecting endangered species, preventing the spread of pests, sustaining native species, fostering adequate instream flows, and rejuvenating contaminated areas.  For the Commission, water quality monitoring must be expanded and the western ephemeral streams should have more protective water quality criteria.  To combat pollution, states need to introduce aggressive nonpoint source programs that encourage best land management policies.  Specifically, the Commission welcomed all land management groups to develop goals that will eliminate pollution from irrigation drainage districts and animal-feeding operations.  These feedlots along with pollutants displaced into groundwater should be placed under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

Besides reducing pollution, the Commission recommended other ways to manage and preserve Western water resources.  Such methods included offstream storage, water conservation and efficiency, water recycling, and conjunctive use of surface and groundwater.  In terms of ground water, the Commission believes that Congress must "require state conjunctive management of groundwater and regulation of withdrawals as a condition of federal financial assistance for construction of new water storage projects or other federally funded activities."  Surface water too should be maintained through dam assessments and reports submitted to Congress.  Lastly, federal groups could encourage voluntary water transfers in addition to the other methods designed to manage water resources.

Probably the most challenging task of water management identified in the report is flood plain management.  The Commission sought full participation from all agencies to develop preventive options such as permanent evacuation from heavily flooded areas and flood warning.   In addition, the Commission developed a strict policy on  flood-plain development and disaster relief.  According to the report, the federal government cannot support construction in flood plains nor make available federal disaster aid to persons who have failed to buy flood insurance.  Furthermore, the Commission would like special benefits for areas that partake in flood-plain management planning and would appreciate innovative solutions to control flooding, e.g. government control of flood-plain lands.  Lastly, there must be more equal cost sharing for funding control programs among the various levels of government.

Overall, the Commission suggested that Congress and federal water agencies help maintain water resource management in a variety of ways.  Government should recognize its role in funding for research programs and in maintaining federal water infrastructure.  Part of this responsibility included cooperating with expert researchers.  Besides bringing in an expert's opinion, it is important for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and other governmental groups to continue tracking national water data.  If an important regional issue should arise, the Commission recommended the designation of an individual who can work on behalf of the issue with the President or Secretary of the Interior.  The full written report can be found at the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission's website.

Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission

Appointed Members
Chairman Denise Fort, University of New Mexico Law School
Patty Beneke, Assistant Secretary for Water & Science, Department of the Interior
Huali Chai, Law Offices of Huali G. Chai
John H. Davidson, University of South Dakota School of Law
John Echohawk, Native American Rights Fund
Janet Neuman, Northwestern School of Law-- Lewis and Clark College
Patrick O'Toole, Rancher
Jack Robertson, Bonneville Power Administration
Dr. John H. Zirschky, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, Department of the Army

Ex-Officio Members
Honorable Ted Stevens, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations
Honorable Robert C. Byrd, Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations
Honorable Frank Murkowski, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Honorable Dale Bumpers, Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Honorable Jon Kyl, Chairman of the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee
Honorable Daniel K. Akaka, Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee
Honorable Bob Livingston, Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations
Honorable David R. Obey, Ranking Minority Member of the House Committee on Appropriations
Honorable Don Young, Chairman of the House Committee on Resources
Honorable George Miller, Ranking Minority Member of the House Committee on Resources
Honorable Bud Shuster, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Honorable James L. Oberstar, Ranking Minority Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Sources: The Washington Post, The Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission 

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Shannon Clark, AGI Government Affairs Intern.

Last updated July 16, 1998

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