BOULDER, COLO. — THE American West is facing major challenges regarding its most precious resource: water. For budgetary and other reasons, the era of expensive concrete-and-steel storage and diversion projects has come to an end. Taxpayer subsidies to water users are under increasing congressional attack. And, perhaps most important, environmental impact is emerging as a key issue (often the key issue) in deciding who - if anybody - gets the water from a particular stream or river.
"The era of surface water development in the West is over," former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt told state water officials at the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Center recently. "The cost in environmental terms is now higher than most people in the West want to pay. And in many places it's not just a question of not taking more water, but of giving water back."
As it is with other important natural resource issues (like timber, mining, and grazing), the "public interest" is supplanting property rights and local political clout in determining water policy across the region. Judges, lawmakers, and water managers are paying much more attention to the "public trust" doctrine in making or interpreting water law. Values are changing as competition for this scarce resource increases.
Only 2 percent of US rivers are free-flowing. There are more than 65,000 dams, plus another 2 million small impoundments for flood control, agricultural storage, and recreation. As a result, federal surveys show, fish habitat is suffering in 68 percent of the nation's streams.
"We have diverted, dammed, or otherwise changed most of the water flow in the US," assistant Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator LaJuana Wilcher told the Colorado gathering. "These unnatural flows are affecting our natural environment - the fish, the wildlife, and complex ecosystems as a whole."
In response, government agencies and courts increasingly are ruling against domestic and commercial water development.
This year the EPA killed the proposed Two Forks Dam in Colorado on environmental grounds. Judges in California have ruled that Los Angeles must stop diverting water necessary to keep Mono Lake (an important Pacific flyway stop high in the Sierra Nevadas) healthy. The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed listing two more species of Pacific Northwest salmon under the Endangered Species Act - a decision that could affect power generation, farming, and logging along the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
Wildlife habitat loss and pollution resulting from agriculture and other commercial water diversions are two key reasons why the EPA is taking a harder line under the Clean Water Act and other federal legislation, in essence tying water quality issues to water quantity decisions.
"As we focus more on ecosystems and biological integrity, the challenges of accommodating both water quality goals and water quantity rights loom large and innovation becomes critical," says Ms. Wilcher, the EPA's top water official.
Most Western water goes for agriculture, much of it provided by projects built this century by the US Bureau of Reclamation. But the US Office of Technology Assessment says farmers pay just 17 percent of the capital and operating costs of such water.
All of this presents state water engineers and resource managers with difficult and sometimes confusing situations.
"It used to be in Idaho that the only good water was diverted to grow potatoes, and anything else was secondary," says Keith Higginson, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. "It wasn't until recent years that we recognized that there are other uses to be considered."
It's still unclear to officials like Mr. Higginson what the "public interest" is. Right now, he says, "it's whatever I can get a court to agree to if my decision is challenged."
From Montana to Arizona, that uncertainty has led to a highly litigious atmosphere. In Las Vegas, for example, 3,600 protests have been filed to 186 applications for water.
Like the EPA, state officials are focusing on the environmental impact of taking too much water - whether from rivers or beneath the surface. "More and more groundwater is being taken and consequently there are more opportunities for contaminants - dissolved solids from mining, agricultural effluents, storm sewers due to population growth," says Utah state engineer Bob Morgan.
"Concrete, asphalt, and lawns are preventing good quality water from reentering the ground."
Last December, Oregon adopted a comprehensive set of water policies that stress conservation. "We expect some real tough contests as we get down to implementing this conservation plan," says William Young, director of the state's water resources department and chairman of the Western States Water Council. "We'll be telling people how much water they can use."
"Denying water is the ultimate hammer of enforcement," says Wyoming state engineer Gordon Fassett.
Other experts note the need for wider regional solutions. "We're learning that isolated and fragmented consideration of water issues is leading to a disappointed public, preemptive federal action, and judicial intervention," says David Getches, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon is drafting legislation to provide a comprehensive review of US water resource problems.