Working together on water, drought

By Randy Scholfield

“We are facing a water urgency in the West,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, at the outset of hearings today on drought legislation in the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power.  And at the outset, Sen. Wyden commended Trout Unlimited and “collaborative coalitions” for doing important work on the Klamath River and other watersheds.

Trout Unlimited’s senior water policy adviser, Laura Ziemer, continued the theme of collaboration in her testimony before the committee. Her message: throughout the West, partners are coming together to find pragmatic, innovative solutions to water scarcity challenges at a variety of scales.

Ziemer called Sen. Maria Cantwell’s recent white paper on drought and water security in the United States “a powerful expression of these on-the-ground successes,” because it calls for “collaborative, watershed-scale solutions based on a portfolio of projects, with innovative financing to get projects over the finish line.” 

Ziemer highlighted several major collaborative projects that have produced remarkable successes, even in places (like the Klamath Basin) that for years seemed hopelessly gridlocked by conflict over water. Among the examples:

--in the Yakima River Basin, stakeholders forged a balanced package of actions that will restore hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead to the basin, improve water quality and quantity, and support a healthy agricultural and recreational economy.  The plan was agreed upon by a diverse coalition of conservation groups, irrigators, farmers, sportsmen and women, local, state, and federal governments and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

--in Montana’s upper Missouri River Basin on the Sun River, TU, the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, and members of the Sun River Watershed Group provided an example of public-private partnership at its best.  With financial support from the Bureau of Reclamation, state and local dollars, the Irrigation District, and the Coca-Cola Company, the coalition implemented irrigation infrastructure upgrades that improved flows and wild trout habitat in the chronically dewatered Sun River.

-- In 2015, the Bureau of Reclamation and four municipal water providers in the Colorado River Basin announced the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) to begin developing tools for responding to long-term drought conditions in the watershed.  So far in the Upper Basin, TU has worked closely with producers, state agencies and the Upper Colorado River Commission, launching six split-season leasing projects that conserved more than 2,000 acre feet of water. And TU and Wyoming landowner partners have proposed more than 10,000 acre-feet of water conservation during the 2016 irrigation season.

-- In the Klamath, residents and policymakers struggled for decades to reconcile the water needs of agriculture, tribes, communities, and fish and wildlife in the basin. Years of negotiations produced three hard-won, bipartisan agreements between farmers and ranchers, tribes, a major utility company, the federal government and the States of California and Oregon that not only provide water security for all parties but also benefit the third-most productive fishery for salmon and steelhead on the West Coast. The collaborative had a set-back when Congress failed to authorize the package at the end of 2015 but the parties regrouped and are making progress again.

Of course, there is still plenty of room for conflict and political posturing over water in the West, but as Ziemer pointed out, “carefully crafted solutions of mutual benefit produce bipartisan support.”

Trout Unlimited has seen this pragmatic, smart future—and it works. We’re all in this together on water. Let’s urge our lawmakers to support this cooperative vision.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s communications director for the Southwest region. 


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