Water

Water is the lifeblood of the West. Our eight Rocky Mountain States are primarily dry,
and although water has been a “fightin’ word” for most of our history, we still have not
come up with adequate ways to fairly distribute the resources we have, or plan for a
future when water will be in increasingly short supply. Water squabbling between
neighboring states has lead to years of court battles over allocations . And disputes remain
over water allocations for the Indian Nations.

Southern Nevada’s Mohave Desert gets just 4 inches of rain a year. Despite its scarcity,
water is a subsidized commodity in most urban areas, and the region’s explosive growth
has occurred in most cases with little thought to the water new residents will demand.
Although per capita water use has declined since its 1975 high, it’s still about triple the
number of gallons per person that we used in 1900.

Irrigated agriculture is a major water consumer throughout this region. As wells dry up
and rivers sink, some farmers are voluntarily cutting back their consumption.
Fortunately, more western states are creating water management areas and water
management plans. But those state regulations often sit apart from local zoning and
development decisions.

Some areas of Arizona, for instance, require builders to show an assured 100 year water
supply . Since the construction of the Central Arizona Project brought Colorado River
water to thirsty interior cities, developers most frequently have little trouble moving
ahead. But Colorado River flows are dwindling, and the seven states counting on their
river allocations may find themselves falling far short of their needs .

Conservation should be a cornerstone of all conversations about water in the west, but
regulations to force or even encourage conservation measures have arrived surprisingly
late. Wyoming didn’t even begin to develop a conservation program until 1998. But
things may be changing. Nevada, for instance, has recently taken an aggressive
conservation stance, reducing water use in the Las Vegas area even as the population
there increases.

Global warming is a wildcard in planning. It’s clear that snow pack has been low for
several years in the Rockies, in fact, Utah saw record-low snowpack in the spring of
2007. And it’s the melting snow that so many communities rely on for their surface
water. (see Global Warming)

The Rocky Mountain Region faces hard choices. More litigation and legislation lie
ahead. But we have the ability to control much of our water future. Western Progress
strongly endorses water conservation efforts on the state, city and regional levels and
encourages individuals to actively move our Rocky Mountains toward sustainability. As
Dr. Peter H. Gleick, one of the country’s preeminent scientists in this field, testified in
Congress, “Water conservation and efficiency are the greatest untapped sources of water
in this nation - cheaper, cleaner, and more politically acceptable than any other
alternative.”

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