Respect for the preciousness of water

I wasn't raised in the West, so my respect for the preciousness of water comes secondhand.

In Illinois, water comes from the sky. A drought is when it doesn't rain for two weeks on the corn crop.

I'd never seen an irrigation system. Ditches were for carrying water away from fields. When farmers formed cooperatives, it was to raise money to build levees so their fields weren't flooded.

The concept of water rights was all new to me when I moved west of the Mississippi 20-some years ago, but I quickly got an education because I spent many years writing about a reservoir proposal called the Animas-La Plata in southwestern Colorado.

Ranchers there live in an area called the Dryside. For most of a century, they've been trying to figure out how to capture some of the mountain flow to irrigate their side of the county -- the side that doesn't have any irrigation ditches.

Most of the land around them is Ute reservation. The tribes have been waiting just as long for the federal government to fulfill its promises to build a reservoir so they could develop their land, much of it rich with coal reserves.

The farmers, tribes and towns in the Four Corners own lots of water rights. But as they say there, it's "paper water." It's not "wet water."

Most of the wet water flows down the Animas and La Plata rivers into the San Juan River, where it joins the Colorado River in Lake Powell. From Powell, the wet water flows through the Grand Canyon and is stored in Lake Mead.

From there, it goes to California. And that made the farmers on the Dryside spitting mad.

For as long as any of them could remember, the Colorado River has been "overappropriated." That means there are more rights than water. When it's a good year, nobody worries. When it's a dry year, somebody goes without.

In California, though, they just kept using the water those Dryside farmers were so desperate to store.

They just kept building places like Palm Desert, where people can ride in gondolas to waterfront cafes, where homeowners can water-ski on a manmade lake, and where golfers can play on more than 100 courses "made lush and green from constant watering," according to an article by Associated Press reporter Seth Hettena.

As soon as I read Hettena's piece about cutbacks on California's use of Colorado River water, my mind immediately flashed to John Murphy standing on his family's dusty ranch and waving his arm at the dusty plain.

"Barry," he would say to me, "it just breaks my heart to think what this could have been."

Murphy died a few years ago without ever seeing his vision realized. Of course, like any federal water project it was full of politics and subsidies and questionable results. After all, the Dryside was not much different from any of the semi-arid lands stretching for hundreds of miles. All it needed was water.

Still, from him I acquired that sour taste in the back of my throat every time I think about those lush golf courses, swimming pools and water-ski lakes being built downstream with somebody else's water.

To my surprise, the bill came due earlier this year.

The federal government finally told California it was cutting back the state's share of Colorado River water by 15 percent. There has been so much growth upstream, and too few wet years, that a crisis is upon the West.

People who pay attention to such things have seen this crisis coming for half a century or so. But for most of that time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was still building dams and enabling places like Phoenix and Las Vegas and the Coachella Valley to grow like wildfires. Houses were built. Industry was created. Money was made.

But they all knew they were dealing with a finite resource. They all knew the Colorado River was drying up before it reached the Gulf of California. Never mind the environmental consequences, which were huge; there were simply too many places building developments on borrowed water.

Then the Bureau of Reclamation stopped building dams. So the solution for the last couple of decades has been to transform irrigation rights -- the water that supplies farmers -- into municipal and industrial rights. We can keep building subdivisions, they said, as long as there are ranchers willing to sell out.

Talk about your finite resources.

Carson City knows all about the limits of water. There is no significant reservoir upstream on the Carson River. We get by because the water from the Sierra Nevada sinks into the ground, where we can pump it up from wells. It's a tremendous water supply, clean and pure, but it will go only so far. When Carson City reaches about 70,000 or 80,000 residents, that's it.

The Interior Department also has a plan, called Water 2025. Its subtitle sums it up best -- "Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West."

There are good reasons for us to check it out (at because we're right on the edge of three big red blotches on the report's maps -- the least rainfall, the fastest migration of population and the most likely for confrontations over water in the next two decades.

I don't know as much as I should about water issues in Nevada, but I do know that 2002 was the dryest year ever in the entire Colorado River Basin.

People who grew up in the West have an ingrained respect for the preciousness of water. The rest of us better wise up quick, or be prepared to move back where water falls out of the sky.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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