Department Of Interior

DOI News Header
Frank Quimby, 202-208-7291
For Immediate Release: June 6, 2003
Trudy Harlow, 202-513-0574

Interior Secretary Norton Urges Locally-Driven, Cooperative Solutions to Avert Water Crises

“The Nation cannot afford repeated water crises in the West,” Secretary Norton tells Water 2025 conference.

The difficult work of preventing conflict over chronic water shortages must be addressed now by local communities in long-range, cooperative planning efforts with state and federal agencies, Interior Secretary Gale Norton told Western officials today at a Water 2025 kickoff conference.

“Through Water 2025, we have assessed the situation and come up with areas we consider to be hot spots with the potential for future conflict over water,” Norton said at the Denver consulting session aimed at discussing the critical water supply issues in the West.

“We have addressed the realities of the arid West and we have suggested tools that can make a difference. We offer our expertise, our skill, and our information. But the hard work of preventing crises and conflict will take place in meeting rooms like these. Long-lasting solutions will come from the people who must live with or learn to live without the water they need.”

“Doing nothing is an option,” Norton noted, “but only if we are willing to accept the drastic consequences that follow.”

Norton spoke to about 300 participants at the conference, Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West. The meeting was the first of nine consulting sessions in Western cities aimed at expanding the dialog on ways of preventing the water supply problems facing many communities.

Two of the major realities driving water supply problems are explosive population growth and competing demands for finite supplies among home owners, businesses, farmers, American Indian tribes, and fish and wildlife. Historic drought cycles, such as the current one, worsen already stressed water resources.

Norton said the water shortage crisis in the Klamath River Basin in 2001, when 1,200 farmers were denied irrigation water because of endangered species regulations, was the beginning of the Water 2025 plan.

“When water crises and conflict pit neighbor against neighbor, species against species, and business against recreation—when they threaten your way of life—we can not afford to stand on the sidelines,” she said. “The social, economic, and environmental consequences are just too severe. These crises impact commercial development, tourism, agriculture, municipal water supplies, and eventually damage the national economy.”

“It is time to work smart to make sure the farmers continue to provide the food and fiber on which the nation depends,” Norton said. “It is time to work cooperatively in partnership using the best ideas to maintain thriving economies and a spectacular natural world.”

“As we have struggled to find Klamath solutions, we have realized that at least some aspects of the crisis could have been averted with long-term planning,” Norton said. “Habitat improvements, fish screens, scientific research, resolution of water ownership disputes, and other changes may eventually allow available water to better meet more human and environmental needs.”

Another reality contributing to the problem is the aging water supply infrastructure of the West, Norton pointed out. “Many water supply facilities continue to use 19th century technology to attempt to meet 21st century problems. Some are 60 years old, while others have been in service for almost a century. In some instances, canals can lose up to 50 percent of their irrigation water either through seepage or through old, inefficient control structures.”

Because it is nearly impossible to arrive at rational and well reasoned solutions in the heat of a crisis, Norton noted, Water 2025 is intended to focus sustained attention on measures that can be put in place before extended drought or other pressures push communities toward divisiveness and conflict.

No one entity, including the federal government, can solve this problem, she emphasized. “For a long-lasting solution, we need everyone at the table, state and local governments, tribes, and stakeholders. We are looking to states and localities to take the lead. We can then help with technical expertise, with facilitation support, and with seed money.”

Conservation, efficiency, and markets are among the key tools that can help communities address water crises, Norton said. The Las Vegas Water Authority instituted an outstanding conservation initiative, for example, by offering residents $1 a square foot to replace water guzzling grass lawns with xeriscaping. Las Vegas saves 55 gallons of drinking water for every square foot of grass removed. Homeowners can get a rebate of up to $50,000. Because as mush as 90 percent of residential water use can be for landscaping, xeriscaping efforts by local water providers can have major benefits. Lining canals also can create significant water savings in many areas because most irrigation water delivery canals in the West are not lined.

Water banks and markets also provide pragmatic solutions. “Interior strongly supports the use of voluntary transfers to allow water to be shifted between competing water uses,” Norton said. “These include agreements that allow agricultural producers the option to rent or lease their available water to cities and towns or other users in times of drought, and still have the ability to farm.”

In California, the Environmental Water Account has proven effective in procuring water for fish and wildlife needs, Norton noted. In Colorado, water banking has become a useful tool in stretching water supplies even further. Water banking has many facets, including banking into groundwater as Arizona is doing.

Interior intends to facilitate research to reduce the high costs of new water purification technologies, the Secretary said. “Reducing desalination costs, for instance, could enable the cost-effective treatment of brackish groundwater in traditionally water-short areas.”

Collaboration is a key, Norton said. “We should have more Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Programs and fewer Klamaths.” The Upper Colorado program, put together through a collaborative effort, provides for the recovery of endangered species and the continued use and development of water for people, cities and farms. A similar effort is underway in the Central Valley of California, where the CalFed process has brought diverse stake-holders together in an effort to protect and restore important ecological resources and protect the people and economy of the state.

“Another tool is removing institutional barriers and increasing interagency cooperation.,” Norton noted. “In some areas of the West, federal facilities have excess capacity at times that could be used to satisfy unmet demands else-where. This unused capacity is sometimes not available due to policy or legal constraints. In some cases, this additional capacity can be made available with changes in Interior policy; in others it would take legislative action.”

“We also intend to better coordinate among federal agencies,” Norton said, noting a recent agreement between the Interior and Agriculture Departments to create interagency Drought Action Teams to focus scarce resources quickly where and when they are needed.

More information on Water 2025 and future consulting conferences is on-line at


Selected Press Releases