Water Wars Heat Up In West

March 18, 2024 By: Spencer Durrant

Photo: Kumweni/Flickr

I’m a fifth-generation resident of the Rocky Mountain West, and I’m an avid angler and big game hunter. I love this part of the world, and there’s nothing (short of the right piece of property in Alaska) that could convince me to leave.

I do worry, however, that many of us in the West may be forced to leave in the coming years if we’re not willing to make hard decisions about water use.

The West’s population is booming, and despite record-high real estate prices, it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. All that growth requires more water, the resource of which we have the least. Most of the water is tied up in centuries-old water compacts, especially in the Colorado River Basin.

This is a situation in which we, as Americans, have historically looked to our leaders for help. After all, we’ve elected our best and brightest to represent us, so surely they’ll have an idea or two.

One idea I’ve seen suggested recently (not by a government leader) is the elimination of beef ranching as one way to save the West. Leia Larsen, of The Salt Lake Tribune, sat down with one proponent of this theory, Brian Richter.  The argument Richter makes is that growing water-intensive alfalfa crops in arid mountain regions, just to feed cattle (and the expanding dairy farms) is a poor use of water.

You can imagine how well that went over with the general public in Utah.

It’s not just in the agricultural sector where we need to look at water conservation. We also have the issue of new mines to contend with, as they’ll impact water quality. The proposed mine on the Smith River in Montana is just the latest example of an industry looking to expand in the West – an industry that uses water which likely can’t be re-used elsewhere.

Lastly, we have the recent report out of California that the state is looking to delay implementing its rules on outdoor water use for lawns until 2040.

Each of these situations isn’t occurring in a vacuum. They’re happening in concert with each other, at least in the sense that they’re underscoring our lack of seriousness about water conservation.

Attempting to get Americans—especially those of us in the West—to eat less beef is likely a non-starter. Most of us, save investors, can agree new mines on rivers in ecologically-sensitive areas are a bad idea, and we’re well past the point of lawns providing anything more than aesthetic value while propping up the Sprinkler Industrial Complex.

Tongue-in-cheek comments aside, my point is that I see a startling lack of seriousness from any officials about water conservation. If those currently in power in the West cared about water conservation, I’d hope we’d see more serious, contemplative ideas brought to the table.

Then again, they say that as a people we get the government we deserve. Perhaps we’ve dug our own bed out West, and it’s time to lie in it.