The Western States Water Council – the water policy arm of the 18 Western Governors – this week will consider recommendations from diverse Western water leaders representing agricultural, environmental, and urban interests.
The report – “Agricultural/Urban/Environmental Water Sharing: Innovative Strategies for the Colorado River Basin and the West” – is the result of convening representatives from The Nature Conservancy, Family Farm Alliance, Western Urban Water Coalition and two dozen others who set aside long-held positions and built new alliances for creative water sharing strategies for mutual benefit. The full report is available at www.cwi.colostate.edu/watersharing.
Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute facilitated the meetings and produced the report as a response to a 2008 challenge by the Western governors: “States, working with interested stakeholders, should identify innovative ways to allow water transfers from agricultural to urban uses while avoiding or mitigating damages to agricultural economies and environmental values.” The project was funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
Some strategies detailed in the report include:
• Farmers and cities in Arizona trading use of surface water and groundwater to the advantage of both;
• Ranchers in Oregon paid by environmentalists to forego a third cutting of hay to leave water in the stream for late summer fish flows;
• A ditch company in New Mexico willing to sell shares of water to New Mexico Audubon for bird habitat on the same terms offered to a new farmer to grow cantaloupe;
• A California flood control and water supply project creatively managed to meet multiple goals of restoring groundwater, maintaining instream flows for wild salmon and steelhead, and providing water for cities and farms;
• Seven ditch companies cooperating in Colorado in a “Super Ditch” scheme to pool part of their water through rotational fallowing, for lease to cities, while maintaining agricultural ownership of the water rights.
“While these strategies sound like good common sense, they all face sizable obstacles,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute. “If we want to share water for the benefit of all, we need a lot more flexibility, all members of the group agreed.”
The group’s recommendations to the Western Governors were developed to provide that flexibility, Waskom said.
Highlights of the recommendations:
• Design robust processes that give environmental, urban and environmental stakeholders opportunities to plan together early on, instead of one-sided “decide, announce, defend” processes that frequently result in opposition and polarization.
• Foster a flexible, watershed based approach that can lead to cross-jurisdictional sharing of infrastructure, cooperatively timed water deliveries, and strategies to facilitate real-time, on-the-ground, state-of-the-art water management for optimal benefit of cities, farms, and the environment.
• Break down legal, institutional, and other obstacles to water-sharing strategies by developing criteria and thresholds that protect agriculture, the environment and any third parties to water sharing transactions. And experiment with creative approaches such as “water resource sharing zones” that could be set up for trading of water, financial resources, and even locally grown food while encouraging interaction between agricultural, environmental, and urban neighbors.
• Expedite the permitting process when programs or projects have broad support of agricultural, urban, and environmental sectors.
• A governor-championed federal/state pilot review process should be established where a state liaison and a federal designate are appointed to co-facilitate concurrent agency review and permitting without repetitive, costly information exchanges. Permitting is important to protect environmental, economic, and social values, the group agreed, but cumbersome permitting processes often lasting years need an overhaul.
In coming months, group members will meet with environmental, agricultural, and urban groups throughout the Colorado River Basin and the West to encourage further dialogue.