Westward, Stop!

Despite the West's arid landscapes, both population and demands on water keep rising.

Indeed, California's population grew by 13.6 percent between 1990 and 2000. Among all the states touching the Colorado River, Nevada grew the fastest - by a whopping 66 percent in the same period. Arizona grew by 40 percent.

Such rapid growth - indeed any growth - has come under scrutiny because of multiyear droughts in much of the West. Rivers and reservoirs are at historic lows, including the Colorado, which supplies more than half the West's water.

Even considering a possible cyclical nature to these water woes, the current distressed conditions should force all governments, local to federal, to adopt slow- or no-growth development policies where water shortages are an issue.

Look no further than the US Interior Department's decision on Jan. 1 to say "no" to California's practice of taking more than its legal share of the Colorado River.

That decision will force tough choices on whether the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley or the thirsty, expanding coastal cities of southern California must cut back.

Just two years ago, California passed a law requiring cities planning large housing developments to ensure an adequate water supply. That's a big step from the days when developers just assumed the public water utility would somehow find the water for every new subdivision.

Also being questioned is the long tradition of ensuring cheap, sometimes even free, water for agriculture. That's a century-old tradition but over time that cheap water has led to overproduction on many farms, with prices for major crops grown in the West being disastrously low.

Now, many farmers are struggling to stay in business, and are willing to sell water rights at high prices to cities. To do that, though, more farmers are switching to crops that use less water or letting land lie fallow longer.

Such reallocating of water supplies forces the question about the proper mix and size of suburban-style housing and farms. Water planners need to be at the center of decisions over every new development.

Some steps - such as desalination processes, recycling, conservation, and reducing consumption - can go a long way in dealing with water shortages. But now's the time for Western states to ask if the price of growth is too high for their environment.

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