In advance of a U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on Western and Alaska water legislation on Thursday, a coalition of conservation and sportsmen’s groups are urging the committee to consider a list of recommendations for federal actions to make our country more drought resilient.
In a letter, the American Sportfishing Association, B.A.S.S., Berkley Conservation Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Trout Unlimited point out that “the worst time to respond to a drought is in the midst of one. At that point, there are few, if any, good options available to avoid the worst impacts of drought, and combined with enflamed passions and politics, reaching consensus on solutions is nearly impossible. We need to start planning for future droughts so that we have more options available to us when the next drought hits and we are less likely to suffer significant economic or ecological harm.”
The groups’ letter sets forth a proactive agenda to make us better able to avoid painful tradeoffs between cities, farmers, and wildlife when the next drought crisis occurs. “Over-allocation, sustained drought, and population growth are stretching Western water resources to the breaking point, and we don’t want to sacrifice fisheries or outdoor recreation businesses that drive local economies in a last-minute scramble for real solutions,” says Jimmy Hague, the Center for Water Resources director at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“In California, we’re witnessing just one example of the devastation that can occur without sufficient precautionary and coordinated efforts in dealing with drought,” says Scott Gudes, vice president of Government Affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “Up and down the Pacific coast, the decline of California salmon is impacting local economies that are dependent on abundant, healthy fisheries. This set of recommendations will help guide a balanced decision-making process, before water scarcity puts us in the position of having to sacrifice our natural resources.”
The recommendations lay out the policy updates and initiatives that federal water program managers can use to create:
Flexibility. Especially in over-allocated watersheds, federal programs need to allow the transfer of water voluntarily and temporarily to other users in times of need, without jeopardizing property rights, sustainable farming and ranching, or healthy fish and wildlife populations.
Incentives. Watershed groups demonstrating successful drought solutions on the local level—where they work best—should be rewarded, and the federal government should encourage the development of similar groups in other watersheds. Examples of locally-driven conservation success stories can be found here.
Access. With dozens of programs available across multiple federal agencies to improve water resources, it is difficult for local groups to know where to turn for assistance or how to navigate the different bureaucracies. We can get more out of limited resources by making these programs more accessible and decreasing the transaction costs of working with the federal government.
Overall healthier watersheds. It’s the most cost-effective means of increasing water supply, reducing wildfire threats, protecting against floods, and improving drought resilience. Improving watersheds is something we can start doing right now.