American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Commission Recommends Shift in Western Water Policy (10/98)

The following column by GAP Intern Shannon Clark is reprinted from the October 1998 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists. It is reprinted with permission.

Few resource issues elicit more debate than water in the Western United States. A presidential commission recently released its report on future water policy, calling on a transition of water resources from the agricultural sector to urban districts. The Commission's proposals could represent an opportunity for geoscientists working on groundwater or related issues to assist local, state, and national leaders in determining the best way to manage our valuable water resources.

This summer, the President's Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission issued a report on Western water policy. Water in the West: The Challenge for the Next Century discussed solutions to problems that have plagued Western cities. To confront overpopulation and decreased groundwater levels, the Commission recommended transferring agricultural uses of water to the needs of the growing urban areas. But Patrick O'Toole, the only agricultural representative on the panel, wrote in his minority report that he could not vote for the majority report because of "its insistent tone on accepting...the inevitable transition of water use from agriculture to other uses." Despite this objection, the group continued to make several recommendations concerning the sustainable use of water, the renewal of river ecosystems, and the reduction of pollution from agricultural sources.

Formation of a Commission
On October 30, 1992, Title XXX of Public Law 102-575 created the Western Water Policy Review Act of 1992. Congress, having recognized that the "nation needs an adequate water supply for all states at a reasonable cost," 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 "the [Western] region is expected to add another 28 million residents by 2025," encouraged the formation of a Commission in 1995.

Associate Professor of Law Denise Fort chaired the advisory commission, which included the Assistant Secretary for Water & Science from the Department of the Interior and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Works from the Department of the Army. In addition, the Commission consisted of eight presidentially appointed citizens and representatives from the Chairs 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 propose recommendations for the appropriate role of the federal government in Western water management, the Commission organized research studies and symposia and gathered expert testimony. Completing its investigation, the Commission concluded that institutional changes must occur in order to oversee water resources in the future and that the geographic and economic diversity of each urban area must be addressed through regional solutions.

Commission Report
In its report, the Commission outlined several principles to guide them in dealing with Western water resources. The main principle for the Commission concerned the sustainable use of water. To make state and federal water programs more efficient, the Commission believed that groups should "organize or integrate...programs, agencies, funding, and decision making around natural systems--the watersheds and river basins." In order to facilitate cooperation among all governmental powers including Indian tribes, agencies must uphold treaties with tribes and recognize tribal rights to water.

In addition to its focus on the sustainable use of water, the Commission also supported the notion of creating a new governance structure for watersheds and river basins. 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 then effectively communicate objectives, sources of funding, and budget organization from the basin level to local watershed agencies.

The Commission also addressed the problems of water quality and the aquatic ecosystem in the American West. Improving the aquatic ecosystem meant not only enhancing water quality but also protecting endangered species, fostering adequate instream flows, and rejuvenating contaminated areas. The Commission argued that in order to combat pollution, states needed to introduce aggressive nonpoint source programs that encouraged best land management policies.

Besides reducing pollution, the Commission recommended other ways to manage and preserve Western water resources. In terms of groundwater, the Commission believed 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." Lastly, federal groups could encourage voluntary water transfers in addition to the other methods designed to manage water resources.

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 includes cooperating with expert researchers. For the geology community in particular, it is not only important for the United States Geological Survey to continue tracking national water data, but also for local geologists to provide their expertise on water resources to the appropriate elected officials. The report is available from the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission, P.O. Box 25007, D-5001, Denver, Colorado, 80225-0007 or its website

Shannon Clark graduated this spring with a B.S. in geology from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she is now working on a master's degree, also in geology.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Posted November 30, 1998

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