Water Doesn’t Have to be for Fighting

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Workshop: Western Water Supply Challenges
Salt Lake City, UT
— September 29, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be back here in Utah. For me, it’s a bit like coming home. I make my home now in Washington, DC, and in Missoula, Montana, but this state was my home for many years when I was a forest supervisor and later a regional forester for the Forest Service. I can see that things have really changed here on the Wasatch Front, just as they have elsewhere in the West.

In fact, I’ve seen a lot of those changes firsthand. I know personally what a huge issue water is in the West, and I applaud the Western States Water Council and Western Governors Association for sponsoring this workshop. I thank Mr. Bell for inviting me to address this issue on behalf of the Forest Service, and I appreciate the opportunity to appear together with my colleagues from BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agencies have been working closely together on watershed issues for many years, and we look forward to continuing that collaboration.

Let me start by saying something that virtually goes without saying, and I think I can speak for all of the federal agencies on this: We federal land managers are absolutely committed to respecting and protecting the use of rights-of-way in the exercise of state water rights. I think we can all agree that we have that responsibility, both legally and morally.

But the real issue goes deeper than that: It’s about how we can sit down together and work through some of the very difficult environmental challenges that every public land manager must face. That includes challenges related to water.

I think we have a common framework for doing that. It’s a framework that the western governors, through the leadership of former Governors Mike Leavitt of Utah and John Kitzhaber of Oregon, gave us through the principles known as Enlibra. We share those principles for working together through what we call cooperative conservation. I’d like to say a few words about the challenges we face and about the opportunities we have to work together through cooperative conservation.

Four Threats

Our mission in managing the national forests and grasslands is to deliver the values that Americans want from their lands. Today, the main values that Americans want from their public lands are clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, scenic beauty, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. We know that from our opinion surveys and also from just getting out and talking to folks in our communities.

The main threats to these values aren’t timber harvest or livestock grazing or road building. Today, the main threats come from fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. Let me just say a few words about these four threats before turning more specifically to water.

  • In the West, we’ve had some of our worst wildland fires in history, including record fires in at least five states in the last three fire seasons. The reason is that so many of our forests are overgrown and unhealthy.
  • Nationwide, invasive species have contributed to the decline of up to half of our imperiled species. The more cheatgrass and leafy spurge we get, for example, the more of our western heritage we lose—and the more of our western livelihood for ranchers and others.
  • We are rapidly losing our natural areas on private land. Every minute, Americans lose more than 3 acres of working farms, forests, and ranches to development. In the West, that often translates into families forced to move from their farms or ranches to make way for condos and subdivisions.
  • And recreational uses have been rising so fast that we haven’t always kept up. In particular, we’re seeing unacceptable resource damage from the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles. In the West, you don’t have to go far to see all the damage out there.

Each of these threats is huge, and none is limited to national forest land. Every one of them crosses jurisdictions, and they all affect water. They all reduce the quantity or quality of the water we can deliver to the American people. Let me illustrate that by taking the four threats again one by one:

  • First, fire and fuels. We estimate that nearly 400 million acres in all ownerships nationwide are high priority for treatment, and national forest land is only about 18 percent of that. If we don’t do the needed treatments, we get fire effects that are way outside the historical range of variability, like siltation in Denver’s water supply following the Hayman Fire in Colorado. So our fire and fuels problem is a threat to water, and it’s all across the board.
  • Invasive species don’t recognize boundaries, either. Unless you treat the entire landscape for leafy spurge, for example, it will just come in again from your neighbor’s land. A number of invasives are serious threats to our water supplies, like giant reed or tamarisk. A single tamarisk can transpire 300 gallons of water a day. A tamarisk thicket can reduce or even dry up a water source.
  • Loss of natural areas affects us all. You might think of this as a private land issue, but if we lose the rural buffers around public land to development, it brings a whole new set of challenges for public land managers. Public uses change, public demands change, and so does public access. Among other things, more people means more demand for scarce water here in the West. Many of the presentations you heard yesterday made that clear.
  • Finally, there’s unmanaged outdoor recreation. Demand for recreation is growing by leaps and bounds, and if we don’t keep up with a system of well-designed, well-drained, well-maintained roads and trails, we get huge problems with erosion and siltation in our streams and reservoirs. You engineers understand that: It’s a threat to our municipal water supplies.

Cooperative Conservation

One lesson from all this is that we can’t solve these problems alone. Nobody can—not the feds, not the states, not the private sector. The problems are just too vast. They extend all across the landscape, so the solutions have to be collaborative. We have to work together.

The other lesson is that these problems won’t wait. If we do nothing, they will only get worse. It will never be easier to tackle these problems than it is today. I believe that we have an obligation to the American people to work together on these problems now—not tomorrow; now.

Fortunately, we have a framework for doing that. Six years ago, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber sat down together and compared notes on what did and didn’t work when it came to addressing environmental issues. Under their bipartisan leadership, the western governors had the foresight to adopt a new collaborative way of tackling the tough problems we face, like the four threats I just mentioned and their impact on water quality and quantity. Our environmental laws give us national sideboards for sustainable land management, but the governors recognized that these laws just aren’t enough, because they don’t necessarily give us good ways of working together. So the governors came up with eight principles for collaborative governance.

These principles have since gained wide acceptance in the West and, indeed, all across the nation. The National Governors Association has endorsed them, for example, and so does the Forest Service. I can’t stress that enough.

In fact, at the Forest Service we take a very similar approach. For example, the first principle is “Reward results, not programs.” We focus on getting results on the ground. Another principle is “Collaboration, not polarization.” We promote collaboration and partnerships, and we try to build respect and relationships.

On September 22, the President endorsed the same approach through an executive order to promote cooperative conservation. The basic idea is this: Instead of fighting pointless battles over process or turf, we need to sit down together and figure out how we can work together to get the results we all want on the ground. That applies to each of the four threats I mentioned: fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. It also applies to the quality and quantity of the water we deliver to people here in the West.

Example: National Fire Plan

Let me give you a couple of examples. The first example has to do with fire and fuels, which I believe to be maybe the most critical issue we face in the West, at least for the next decade or so. And, as I said, it’s a big threat to municipal water supplies for the people we serve.

After the horrendous 2000 fire season, we came up with the National Fire Plan. From the outset, the plan was based on collaborative governance—on getting results through collaboration with local communities. Working with the western governors and others, we improved on the National Fire Plan through the 10-Year Strategy and the 10-Year Implementation Plan. We adopted principles analogous to the Enlibra principles, like landscape-scale planning, use of economic incentives, and finding neighborhood solutions. These same principles went into the Healthy Forests Initiative and the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act passed by Congress last year.

Under the Healthy Forests Initiative, we’ve had some remarkable successes. Typically, our projects involve reducing fuels and restoring forest health near the streams, lakes, and reservoirs that supply our water in the West. They also typically involve local communities and homeowners in making their properties firesafe.

A good example is a small town in southwestern Utah called Central. Like many communities in the WUI, Central has a mix of lands surrounding it, including state and federal land. Through a collaborative partnership, the state joined the Forest Service, BLM, and private landowners in building a fuel break around town.

It wasn’t very pretty, but it sure was effective. This past August, when a fire came roaring through, it looked like the town was in trouble. A hundred homes had to be evacuated. But the fuel break slowed the fire enough for firefighters to get in and contain it. No one was hurt and no structures were lost. These are the kinds of results we can get on the ground if we work together instead of fighting each other.

Example: Colorado MOU

I’ll give you one more example before I close, this one directly related to water. It comes from Colorado, where we’ve seen explosive population growth in recent years, especially on the Front Range. All those new people have escalated the demand for all kinds of water uses. The new sub-developments on the Front Range need lots of water. People also want water for recreational use when they go back into the mountains. They want to fish or raft in the rivers, to camp along the streams, and to see lots of healthy vegetation and wildlife, along with some beautiful scenery. All of that takes water.

At the same time, we’ve been experiencing years of drought. With growing demand for a shrinking water supply, the uses have sometimes come into conflict, and unfortunately we’ve ended up in court more than once. In fact, we’ve found ourselves increasingly tied up in litigation. We’ve been using both federal and state taxpayer money to pay legions of lawyers instead of getting results on the ground.

We finally decided to get smart. We were in an unsustainable position, where the only ones winning were really the lawyers, which was the last thing any of us wanted. So we sat down with the Colorado DNR and the state Water Conservation Board, and we agreed to stop fighting each other. Instead, we signed a memorandum of understanding whereby we agreed to find ways of working together to address the issues rather than suing each other. Through the MOU, we are building a collaborative relationship whereby we can better serve our mutual needs—the need to maintain existing water rights and uses while managing the state’s fisheries, or to offer our mutual publics places where they want to go. Again, these are the kinds of positive results we can achieve together through cooperative conservation.

Collaborative Vision

Mark Twain once said, “Whisky is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” Here in the West, we’ve learned the truth in that, and we’ve also seen the danger in it. We’ve learned that we don’t have to fight over water if we sit down together, figure out some long-term goals we can all share, and work together to achieve them. The western governors have done their part by giving us a framework for cooperative conservation. I believe that it’s up to all of us now to apply these principles for the sake of a better future in the West.