Tide of Sentiment Shifts in Water War

Montana's Poorman Creek, a spawning ground for trout, was drained by ranch irrigation. It has since been restored.
Montana's Poorman Creek, a spawning ground for trout, was drained by ranch irrigation. It has since been restored. (By Mike Roberts)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

BIG SKY, Mont. -- A hundred years after the city of Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley farmers battled neighboring Owens Valley for control over water from the Owens River, there's a new kind of water war in the West.

From Montana to Arizona to California and beyond, alliances of environmentalists, fishermen and city dwellers are challenging the West's traditional water barons -- farmers and ranchers -- who have long controlled the increasingly scarce resource.

The West largely depends on its rivers and snowmelt for its water supply, and a combination of recent urban growth and prolonged drought has resulted in demand greatly outstripping supply. Under longstanding federal and state policies reinforced by farmers' historic political clout, agriculture has laid claim to about 80 percent of those scant resources -- at rock-bottom prices -- on the grounds that water is critical to the survival of crops and livestock.

Now, however, other users are arguing that this system is unfair, uneconomical and a threat to many delicate ecosystems, and not only in the West.

Farmers typically pay less for their water than nearby cities: In California's Central Valley, they get their water from the federal government at below-market prices, a subsidy that amounts to $416 million a year, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. And unlike cities getting the same water, farmers are paying back the cost of the region's giant irrigation system without interest.

In areas such as the Pacific Northwest's Klamath River Basin, commercial fishermen and Indian tribes say agriculture is depriving them of the water they need to maintain the local salmon fishery and a way of life.

Near Yuma, Ariz., alfalfa and cotton farmers in the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District are concerned that the rapid growth of Phoenix will threaten their water rights. "There's fear," said Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona professor of law and public policy. Steve Owens of the state's Department of Environmental Quality sees water conservation as "probably the number-one environmental issue" facing the state.

Such battles have spread nationwide as groups from Florida to Nebraska squabble over farmers' voracious water use, but nowhere are the stakes higher than in the fast-growing West. Rivers and streams there occupy just 5 percent of the land but sustain nearly half of the fish and wildlife species.

In the past, when the competition for water was less intense, Western cities often cut deals with agricultural interests to build massive projects to supply both. But rapidly growing municipal needs -- the West is now home to nine of the 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas -- mean urban areas now are in direct competition with ranchers and farmers.

"To me, this is deja vu all over again," said John Vincent, a commissioner in Montana's Gallatin County who served for 16 years in the state legislature and two years as Bozeman's mayor. "It's a new phase of the water wars. The players have changed."

In some cases, such as Big Sky's Poorman Creek, compromise turned out to be easy. Montana rancher Eddie Grantier, who raises 100 head of cattle on the ranch his parents founded, conceded that the ranch had wasted water for years, ultimately drying up a tributary of the Blackfoot River used by vulnerable bull and cutthroat trout swimming upstream to spawn.

After officials from the advocacy group Trout Unlimited raised $110,000 to install a sprinkler irrigation system, pump and pipeline, and a screen to keep fish from getting trapped in the intake pipes, Grantier threw in $20,000 worth of his own work to conserve water.

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