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Saving the West, together

Published March 2, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At the end of last year, the U.S. Department of Interior released a 163-page Colorado River Basin study, three years in the making, that projected demand for water would significantly outstrip supply in coming years.

"This is a very significant finding ... this study should serve as a call to action" Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

It is hard to focus on this study without seeing a brilliant flash of the obvious.

Some 120 years ago, Major John Wesley Powell said, "I wish to make it clear to you, there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated, and only a small portion can be irrigated ... . I tell you gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict!"

Though apparent to many, this is the first broad declaration of the problem. Salazar deserves credit for getting this report off the ground and brought to conclusion; the Basin States deserve credit for participating to produce a credible report.

Our long-held belief in technology has begun to dissipate. We cannot drill, pipe, dam or squeeze the Colorado River any more to resolve water issues in the West.

The call to action involves a diverse constituency — seven states, water for over 30 million people, irrigation of nearly four million acres of land and 22 Native American tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas and 11 national parks. Well represented to this point are the development interests. Lagging behind are the environmental interests. The National Park Service, a major land manager in the system, was all but left out of these recent deliberations.

This call to action must consider the environmental legacy of the last 90 years (since the 1922 Colorado River water compact).

The actions taken by the Bureau of Reclamation have created economic growth, expanded Western population and fostered other benefits that we must sustain. It has also devastated entire ecosystems along the river, harming special places and many species — destroying countless artifacts of Native American heritage as well as impairing fundamental values of the national parks.

To solve this, we must change who is in the inner circle of parties responsible for deciding how we resolve water issues.

The National Park Service — the keeper of "the best idea that America ever had" — must be at the table to ensure solutions are not at the expense of important national conservation and heritage values.

We have to resolve this issue in a way that does not lead to further negative effects on key Western land, lifestyles and economics.

Parks, for example, are a multi-billion dollar business for surrounding communities.  We need a complete solution that includes agriculture, municipalities, power and industry, tribes, and that protects the spiritual and economic values of our public lands, including our national parks.

The late U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, having had a chance to see cause and effect, regretted one vote — his support for Glen Canyon Dam — because of its impacts on natural and cultural values.

We need to turn his regretful hindsight into forward-looking, holistic solutions.

Everyone can participate by sending comments on this important issue before March 14 to: ColoradoRiverBasinStudy@usbr.gov.

What we devise together in the next few years will dramatically impact our grandchildren's future.

We won't have other chances to get it right.

Let's take the secretary's challenge and work together to ensure we see the whole picture.

Let's address the water needs of the basin and include in them the protection and restoration of our parks, refuges, reservations and inherent Western values.

Steve Martin is retired from the National Park Service. His positions included superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, deputy director of the NPS in Washington, D.C., superintendent of Grand Teton and of Denali national parks. He lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.