Reporting from the Western Governors' Association — An Innovative Water Transfers Workshop
By Carlee Brown
M.S. Earth Systems '11, B.A. American Studies '09
Growing up with the lakes, rivers and springs of Florida, I was used to water in abundance. In the Bay Area, too, our proximity to the ocean and the heavy winter rains makes it seem that water flows freely (even though our supply comes from the Hetch Hetchy, more than 150 miles away). But Denver is the perfect place to work on water supply issues. The Platte River running through the city reminds me more of a large creek than of the St. Johns River that I grew up with in Florida. Most lakes in Colorado are actually reservoirs. Flying into Denver one sees wide, treeless plains that continually sprout new housing developments. Where will those people get their water? As Colorado grows from 5 million residents today to an expected population of 9 million in 2050, how will the state satiate the thirst of its new inhabitants?
My internship with the Bill Lane Center this summer placed me with the Western Governors’ Association in Denver, Colorado. WGA works on policy issues of interest to governors from its 19 member states. I was brought in to work on water policy – specifically, the issue of water transfers. Water transfers are transactions in which a water right holder – often a farmer with irrigated land – sells a water right to another party, such as a city or an environmental conservation group. Cities use the water to supplement their supplies for residents; conservation groups leave the water instream for ecosystem health. During my internship with WGA, I analyzed the available data and literature on transfers to provide the background for a report that WGA will release in 2012. The report will provide an analysis of transfers in the West with a “toolkit” of policies states can use to avoid or mitigate harm to rural communities.
My internship culminated with a workshop that marked the official beginning of our transfers project. I delivered a presentation to our attendees, a group of water transfer experts and state water resource managers from across the West. My presentation was a brief overview of the status of water transfers in the West: where they are most prevalent, who transfers water to whom, and how much water is being transferred. The talk set the stage for our half-day workshop on water transfers in which state water managers from California, Colorado, and Oregon spoke about the ways transfers are addressed in their home states. Irrigation district managers from the Bend, Oregon area – where our meeting was hosted – showed how they had kept water deliveries to farmers steady while simultaneously increasing instream flows. They implemented conservation strategies such as laying down pipes for water that once flowed through open canals. The experiences of these experts and practitioners gave us perspective on how to proceed with our larger transfers project.
My research on transfers has helped me gain a new appreciation for the water flowing through the Platte River and the water streaming out of my tap (the same water, in fact). I focused my studies at Stanford on agricultural policy, thus I always knew how important water is to agriculture. Now, however, I feel that I better understand the tension between continuing to use this precious resource for agriculture – thus feeding people and maintaining our regional heritage – versus sending the water along to more lucrative urban uses as the population grows and the economy booms. The politics and problems of transfers are tricky to sort out, but overall I am optimistic that states will manage water-sharing strategies in a manner that benefits all involved – hopefully, with the help of WGA’s report.
Read more about the WGA's July 2011 An Innovative Water Transfers workshop and download Carlee's presentation here.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »