No single issue affects the ability of West to continue to grow and prosper as much as the availability of an affordable and secure water supply. Since territorial days, Western communities have struggled over water rights. Fortunately, recent developments provide renewed hope that cooperative efforts may provide solutions that benefit the entire region:
- Westerners in Key Roles at the Federal Level: Arizona Senator Jeff Flake is quickly establishing himself as a capable leader on Western water policy. Earlier this month, Flake was named Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power. Other Western states including Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah are also represented on this important subcommittee, which oversees federal involvement in irrigation, reclamation and hydropower.
Another Westerner – Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke – is poised to become the next Secretary of the Interior. After eight years of a strained relationship with Interior, a new direction is needed to improve collaboration between the states and this agency which controls so much public land and water resources.
- Drought Contingency Planning for Lake Mead: A prolonged drought has put Lake Mead dangerously close to falling below the 1,075 foot threshold that would trigger water cutbacks to lower basin states Arizona, California, and Nevada. For nearly four years, stakeholders from these states have been meeting to develop a Drought Contingency Plan. While negotiations have been slow and difficult, they are progressing. As the possibility of mandated cutbacks by 2018 becomes more likely, expect the urgency factor to ratchet up as it is in the best interest of all parties to resolve points of contention.
- Regional Desalination Projects: Over the longer-term, desalination of ocean water could provide an important avenue for augmenting our water supply. Israel, which gets 55% of its freshwater supply from desalination, provides an instructive example of the potential that exists. Currently, the Colorado Basin States are negotiating a successor agreement to our water treaty with Mexico. The new agreement, known as Minute 32x, will explore binational desalination projects. While desalinization plants are expensive to build and operate, the long-term prospects for desalination look more promising as technologies advance and costs decline. Israeli households pay an average of $30 per month for water as compared to $47 in Las Vegas and $58 in Los Angeles.
- Investment in Water Infrastructure: A rare bipartisan consensus is emerging around the need to upgrade our nation’s infrastructure. While most of the conversations focus on transportation projects, the need to upgrade our nation’s water infrastructure is equally pressing. An estimated 1 trillion gallons of water are lost each year due to leaking pipes. The American Society for Civil Engineers gave the United States a grade of D for drinking water infrastructure. The American Water Works Association estimates that the Western region will require an investment of $237 million for drinking water infrastructure though 2035 to replace aging pipes and build new ones to keep up with population growth.
A Federal infrastructure bill opens the door for these needed investments. Existing programs that could be augmented include the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund and the Water Infrastructure Finance Innovations Authority, both of which provide low-cost loans for water infrastructure projects. And finally, lifting barriers for private infrastructure financing could open up new sources of funding for much-needed projects.
Mother Nature creates droughts; smart policies prevent water shortages. By its very nature water ignores political boundaries. Desert states like Nevada and Arizona depend on ample snow fall in the Colorado Rockies to replenish our surface water supply. Similarly, aquifers cross state and national boundaries. Yet, the management of our water resources remains a highly politicized issue. As these examples demonstrate, regional and binational cooperation will better advance our mutual interests to conserve water, augment supply and respond to drought.