Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Andrus Center tackles Western water

Conference spurs talks of change

Express Staff Writer

Despite receiving a dusting of April snow this week, the Wood River Valley is still facing the impacts of long-term drought. Snowpack levels throughout the region are tens of percentage points below where water managers would like to see them.

If there's one thing Kay Brothers hopes will happen to alleviate the West's growing water conundrums, it's that people will accept that change west of the 100th meridian is inevitable.

"It's coming. In the next 10 to 20 years we're going to see a lot more change than in the last 10 to 20 years," she said. "I don't know if you can change human nature, but it will help if we can accept that we are going to change."

Brothers is the assistant general manager of the Los Vegas Water District, where change has become a key word during the last several drought-stricken years. The district is evaluating new water projects, including one that would divert the Virgin River and pump its water into the parched and growing city.

It is conservation, however, that has proved the most economical option. The district is paying its customers to tear up lawns and replace them with water-sensitive Xeriscape.

"The more we look at it (pumping water from the Virgin), the better conservation looks," Brothers said.

Brothers was one of more than a dozen people who participated in the first day of a Boise conference on one of the world's most important resources: water. The Andrus Center for Public Policy and The Idaho Statesman sponsored the two-day conference, called Troubled Water.

The day was an exercise in deduction, as speakers first addressed water quality and quantity on a global scale before moving on to the West, Idaho and the Snake River Plain.

And this year's woeful water year in the Northwest was high on the minds of many.

Idaho is sitting on a "volatile" situation, said Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Karl Dreher. "The drought that we're experiencing in the upper Snake River basin is not only the worst we've experienced, but it appears to have a recurrence interval of less than 500 years. What we're going through is bad, but it could get worse."

John Leshy, a law professor at the University of California, contested Dreher's point.

"Is this drought or long-term change?" he asked. "It's an unknown."

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys agreed that the West has a desert heart. He said the bureau has exercised "judicious" decision making in its past dam construction. He said more dams will probably be built, but the model will be different and will include funding from states, local governments and private organizations, in addition to the federal government.

He said Western states must be careful they don't come out of the current drought and still be in hard times.

"We don't know if we're in the fifth year of a five-year drought or the fifth year of a 10-year drought, but we don't want to get to where the drought breaks and still not have water," Keys said.

For her part, chemical engineer Jan Dell issued a cup-half-full perspective for those who attended the conference.

"Water is solvable," she said. "This is not climate change, where no one knows what's going to happen. It's politics that get in the way."

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