There's not enough water to go around in the West, but there's no shortage of discourse once the tap starts flowing at symposiums on the subject.
Take the annual springtime confab of the American Water Resources Association, held this week in Salt Lake City and drawing speakers from around the country offering long-labeled spiels on topics ranging from "resource conflict" in upstate New York to sprinkler systems in Seattle.Foundering at times in the arcane and academic, the four-day conference, which ends Wednesday, also features speakers that have an agenda in mind, i.e., how to get more of an already burdened supply of water to their constituencies.
Terry Katzer, an official from the Las Vegas Valley Water District, was in the latter category, presenting a talk on that city's efforts to get its hooks into the Virgin River, a highly coveted stream that flows out of Utah.
His offering's tangled title was shorter than most - "To Capture a River: Water Supply Development of the Virgin River, Clark County, Nev."
The subject has less to do with science than society, noted Katzer, who dubbed the hydrology of the river "very simple . . . compared with the politics."
Las Vegas, one of the fastest-expanding cities in America, has to slake its growing thirst somehow if it is to continue sprawling across the desert. Though Nevada has less legal claim to the Colorado River watershed than any of eight states that share it, Las Vegas for some years has been eyeing Utah's share, which because of its location east of the Wasatch Mountains is largely unused by the Beehive State.
"The Upper Basin states (like Utah) aren't too crazy about that," deadpanned Katzer, who argued nonetheless that the generations-old compact that governs the distribution of the watershed was founded on an agricultural economy, not the "recreation-based industry" that fuels Las Vegas' growth today.
On the other hand, it's farmers who get the shaft as the region's demographics shift, argued Salt Lake water attorney Harold A. Ranquist, who spoke on what he called the abuses fomented by the Endangered Species Act.
His exhibit was the Snake River Basin, which slopes out of southern Idaho into the Columbia River and is at the center of a controversy over whether irrigation water should be redirected downstream to help migratory salmon replenish their numbers.
"It doesn't take into account the human impact," said Ranquist, who gave his speech a rhetorically inquisitive title: "Is the Endangered Species Act Implementation Process Used by Environmental Groups an Exercise of Unrighteous Dominion?"
Yes is the answer, maintained Ranquist, who said Idaho's potato farmers are the cornerstone of an entire region's economy.
If irrigation rights are revoked, he said, "the crops die, the farmer goes bankrupt . . . and then what happens to the butcher, the baker the candlestick maker? Their lives are destroyed, their families are destroyed."
Among the academicians in attendance is Kate A. Berry, a University of Nevada-Reno professor who reviewed the results of a public-servant poll in an abstract called "Sources of Knowledge: A Survey of Local Elected Policymakers' Formal and Informal Education and Accruement of Information on Water Issues."
Berry found that urban politicians tend to have a better-educated view of water management than their rural counterparts but that in general few had much real expertise, a shortcoming that didn't seem to bother most of them.
The survey said most elected officials turn to each other for questions on water issues.
"They tended to rely most heavily on fellow board members or commissioners," said Berry.