Water trafficking

Getting a handle on where the presidential candidates stand on water transfers is tough

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, right, could be in the catbird seat for offering advice on Western water transfers should John Kerry be elected president.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, right, could be in the catbird seat for offering advice on Western water transfers should John Kerry be elected president.

Photo By Dennis Myers

In March 1994, after years of contention about whether officials in the Truckee Meadows would be able to import water from the Honey Lake region that straddled the Northern California/Nevada border, the Clinton administration suddenly slammed the door shut, vetoing federal permitting for the project.

It was a telling demonstration of the power of presidential administrations over water transfers. But finding out where George W. Bush and John Kerry stand on the issue isn’t easy. And it may be important. Clark County officials are trying to import water from Nevada’s small counties. Water investors in the Honey Lake project keep trying to bring it back to life (RN&R, Dec. 18, 2003).

Spokespeople for the presidential candidates’ campaigns, when contacted, were puzzled by the issue. And some of the information available tends to apply more to agricultural water transfers than typical modern Western transfers, which more often involve urban growth.

Bush’s administration has a record that helps define him on the issue. A joint U.S./Canadian body two years ago declared what had become more or less public policy on water issues—“While the commission acknowledges the anxiety expressed by some at the hearings, the commission continues to believe that the era of major diversions and water transfers in the United States and Canada has ended.”

But Bush said the United States would be interested in importing water from Canada to Southwestern U.S. states—a stance that angered the Canadian government and set off alarm bells among legislators and activists who had spent years trying to reduce water trafficking. An Ottawa newspaper said it “confirmed the fears of the most vocal opponents of bulk water shipments.”

In October 2003, Bush’s secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, came to Hoover Dam to sign documents transferring billions of gallons of water from California’s agricultural areas to its fast-growing coastal cities, making sure a massive water transfer to feed urban growth went through.

The event was rich in history. The agreements she signed forced farmers in the Imperial Valley to sell as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water to San Diego.

The Imperial Valley, which receives more transferred water than any farming area in the nation, was a pioneering 1901 Western desert reclamation project (converting desert land to farmland through water transfers) that transformed the valley—previously known as the Valley of the Dead—into an agricultural showcase. It was so famous that an epic motion picture, The Winning of Barbara Worth (Gary Cooper’s feature film debut), was made on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert about the project.

Norton’s transfer of water from the Imperial Valley involved some rough tactics. When farmers in the valley resisted, she issued a December 2002 threat to cut the valley’s water allotment from the Colorado River by Jan. 1 unless a deal with San Diego was approved. This represented a curtailment of the 15 years the federal government during the Clinton administration had given California to phase in water reductions.

It took another few months, but Norton got her way.

In March, Norton said in a broad policy statement, “Collaborative approaches and market-based water transfers will help address emerging needs. Federal investments in research and development will improve water treatment technologies such as desalination.”

In another dispute in California, the Bush administration in August opened a public-comment period on transfer of Central Valley water to the south before the environmental studies being commented on were yet available (Chico News & Review, Sept. 2, 2004).

As for Kerry, his campaign has released this position paper:

“ENCOURAGE EFFICIENT USE OF WATER. John Kerry will work with state and local authorities to encourage efficient water use in industrial, urban and farming operations through the use of incentives; education and training opportunities regarding more efficient water use; and the encouragement of modern water management practices such as water transfers, where appropriate.”

What “where appropriate” means is anyone’s guess—it’s the kind of language that drives people nuts about John Kerry, vague and noncommittal. (It’s similar to the “best science” loophole Bush gave himself in 2000 that allowed him to approve the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage project without breaking his veto promise to Nevada.)

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has announced, on Kerry’s behalf, a Great Lakes plan that opposes water transfers from the Lakes.

Repeated efforts to get more information from Kerry’s national and local offices have been unavailing. However, in Nevada terms, there is a safety factor—U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who would likely advise a President Kerry on water transfers within the state.

Reid was instrumental in getting the Clinton administration to kill the Honey Lake water transfer, and he has campaigned hard for Kerry, putting the Massachusetts senator in his debt.

There has been at least one instance of a Western water transfer where Kerry and Bush have locked horns, though it still happened in farm country.

The management of the Klamath River became a volatile bone of contention between farmers and Native Americans, with angry farmers repeatedly opening headgates to allow water to flow in defiance of court orders designed to protect salmon runs. A 10-year plan developed by Norton has failed to settle the dispute, and the September 2002 death of more than 30,000 Chinook salmon exacerbated hard feelings among the parties.

When he learned that Bush political adviser Karl Rove had briefed Interior Department officials on Klamath water issues, Kerry called for an investigation. In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Kerry wrote, “The Bush administration has acted as if federal agencies like the Interior Department are a division of the Republican National Committee and at their disposal to give out political favors. The Klamath decision should have been based on law and science, and not a political operative’s agenda, polls and campaign priorities.”

While an inspector general’s inquiry found no direct evidence of political interference, the dispute still helped highlight differences between Bush and Kerry on water transfers—and Kerry still maintains a political advisor should not have been involved at the policy level of a cabinet department.