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The West 2000 Page 15

Git Home! | The West 2000 Page 1

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Club’s intentions. It worked even beyond Sierra Club expectations and hopes, in a rapid few years shutting down virtually all logging on public land. This even though the owl’s supposed reliance on old growth timber was put into serious question by hundreds of nests found in second growth forests and one even discovered in a K-Mart sign.

There are 1,197 species of plants and animals in the United States listed as threatened or endangered. Since final passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, 11 species have been delisted as a result of their recovery; seven species have been declared extinct; and nine other species have been delisted after finding the original data was incorrect.

Of the 10 to 30 million species estimated to exist on the planet today, scientists estimate that 17,000 become extinct every year. That is not an alarming figure. Most of the species that ever existed are today extinct from natural processes.

Though science debates how much government actually had to do with it, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) can certainly flaunt its poster successes in the bald eagle or the peregrine falcon, even while ignoring that it was the elimination of pesticides such as DDT, and the work of the private Peregrine Fund, that deserve the credit.

But the key to understanding the ESA today is in that “surrogate” issue. Most of the species listed are considered in danger because of habitat loss, and the most frequently “lost” habitat involves fresh water.
Which brings us to what has always been the bottom line in the West. If the West had been blessed with nearly the same general distribution of rivers and waterways found east of the Mississippi, this would surely be a different nation, and no such disputes over “public land” could possibly have endured over more than a century. In the West, as Mark Twain observed, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”

Administration of the Endangered Species Act today is largely the responsibility of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, headed by George Frampton. If water is what will unlock the door to species survival, Frampton holds the key. And, as in other parts of Interior Department policy, it is seldom a matter of representative debate about the outcome.

Water transformed the desert in some areas of the West, making it “bloom” as Theodore Roosevelt promised in new farms that were meant to feed industrial expansion to the coast. Such promises of water for irrigation brought people West at the beginning of the 20th century. Probably the most common issue at the heart of most disputes in the West today are over rights still held to that water. In an ever-growing West it is ever more the most valuable commodity. Water is power.

More than the land, the government wants the water.

That is the bottom line.


Never like the East, of course, water in the West has always been more scarce and more at issue over who should control its use. Rainfall in the 17 western states is typically 30 to 50 percent of what it is in the East.

In the East, general water doctrine is based on “riparian rights” of each landholder adjacent to a stream sharing equally in its “reasonable” use.

In the West, water law follows a doctrine of “prior appropriation,” allowing the first water user to take what is needed for “beneficial” use. In a drought, senior rights are met first, the basic rule being, “use it or lose it.”

Agricultural users in the West have generally been losing it in the last 20 years due to new claims by federal authorities over what is “beneficial” use and “prior” rights. In large part, this is because federal doctrine that once left the matter of “prior appropriation” to the states and to notion of allowing the West to “bloom” from irrigation, has been “reinvented” in the last decade with more and more claims of federal rights.

Those priorities have changed since federal reclamation policy at the beginning of the 20th century encouraged families to settle in an arid West made to “bloom” from the creation of dams, reservoirs and irrigation systems.

Today, some 31 million people in the West rely in one way or another on the more than 300 dams and reservoirs built by the Bureau of Reclamation to provide water to more than nine million acres of farmland since 1902.

Despite promises made to those original settlers, however, increasing demand for water from growing urban areas and newly established wildlife habitats has resulted in major alterations in the policy and mission of federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation. And although federal authority stems from the Reclamation Act of 1902, since then assumed and actual federal authority over water resources has been fragmented into multiple agencies.

No less than 12 standing committees in Congress have jurisdiction over “federal” water, yet no comprehensive plan on federal water resources has been introduced since the 1965 Water Resources Planning Act generally providing for an assessment of the resource.

Since then, although states are acknowledged to generally have control over their own water resources, multiple federal agencies including the BLM, the Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Environmental Protection Agency have claimed prior rights for the allocation of western water.

The complex issue of water rights is expected to be argued in one or more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in this decade. In the meantime, however, losses of farmland due to elimination of irrigation or grazing rights by federal authorities amount to millions of acres and continue to be central to the issue in the West.
More so than we would like, Range is accused of “preaching to the choir” by reminding those in the rural West of what they already know. But neither we nor those readers closest to us want to be regarded as missionaries or adversaries in causes that need not divide the nation or the people of the West as much as they have in recent years. John


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