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Guest Opinions

The Western States Water Council: Water Needs and Strategies for a Sustainable Future

Written by Tony Willardson

By Tony Willardson, WSWC Executive Director


When the Western States Water Council (WSWC) meets next month in Stateline, Nev. on July 8-10, it will mark its 50th Anniversary. A unique government entity, it is an instrumentality of each and every one of the 18 participating member states. Formed pursuant to a resolution of the then Western Governors’ Conference, it first met in Stateline on Lake Tahoe on Aug. 3, 1965. Originally, WSWC included the 11 most western states, but over the years states from Texas to North Dakota joined, and later Alaska became a part of the organization. Eighteen states are now represented. Hawaii was also once a member. While originally located in Portland, Oregon – the Council’s offices are now on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah.

WSWC member state representatives are appointed by their governors. The Council’s current chair is Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell. Of note, the Council continues to work closely in cooperation with the Western Governors’ Association, the incoming chair of which is notably Wyoming Governor Matt Mead. Over the years, the Council has benefited from the expertise and dedication of its appointed members and staff, as well as the continuing commitment of western governors.

The Governor’s 1965 resolution calling for the Council’s creation, dated June 10, 1965, recognized that “the future growth and prosperity of the western states depends upon the availability of adequate quantities of water of suitable quality; and that there was a need for an accurate and unbiased appraisal of present and future requirements of each area of the West and for the most equitable means of providing for the meeting of such requirements demands a regional effort.”

At its first meeting, Governor Grant Sawyer of Nevada observed, “Gathered here today is a greater assemblage of knowledge of water problems of the West than has ever been seated in one hall before…. We must act as fast as we can, for I guarantee, if we cannot get this moving among the states, it is going to be done, and it may be done at a level which may not take into account public interest as we see it. If we cannot work together as combined states, we certainly cannot complain if someone else, specifically the federal government, resolves our problems for us. We cannot complain about federal control when it is invited by our own inaction.”

He concluded declaring that western governors “… hope this will be a stable, long-lasting … Council of vigorous action.”

Much of the early work of the Council centered on evaluating proposals for long range inter-basin transfers of water supplies and encouraging the development of state water plans. However, over the years, the focus changed to reflect other matters of imminent and pressing concern to the states it represents – addressing critical issues of concern to the states individually and collectively. The Council has been particularly instrumental and effective in monitoring and influencing federal legislation, rules, regulations, directives and programs affecting state water rights and western water generally.

Recently, WSWC has been intimately involved in discussions related to the rule EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have released regarding their jurisdiction over “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) and the U.S. Forest Service’s Groundwater Directive, just withdrawn with a commitment to work more closely with the WSWC and others. The Council is also building a Water Data Exchange (WaDE) to allow states to more easily share their water rights, water use, water quality and other data sets.

The WSWC has been a valued advocate for federal programs that facilitate improved western water management, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stream gauging program, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) snow surveys and water supply forecasting, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather and river forecasting, and USGS and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) Landsat thermal imaging for monitoring consumptive water uses. The Council just completed work and a summary report on the need to integrate water and energy resources policy and planning. It holds regular symposia and workshops on the settlement of Indian water rights claims, infrastructure development, drought monitoring and prediction and other topics.

Information on Council meetings and activities can be found online at westernstateswater.org.

In 2008, at the request of the governors and WSWC, a Western Federal Agency Support Team (WestFAST) was established with representation from a dozen federal agencies with water related responsibilities to work together and with western states to address issues of common concern and improve intergovernmental relations. A federal liaison is housed in the WSWC offices on a rotating two-year detail shared among the federal agencies. WestFAST has been a great step forward in federal/state collaboration of water resources management, protection and development matters.

The Council’s vision states that state primacy in the management of our water resources is fundamental to a sustainable water future. Given the importance of the resource to our public health, economy, food security and environment, water must be given a high public policy priority at all levels. Further, an integrated and collaborative approach to water resources management is critical to the environmentally sound and efficient use of our water resources. States, tribes and local communities should work together with stakeholders to resolve water issues, emphasizing a grassroots approach to identifying problems and developing solutions.

When the Council meets next it will consider its vision for the next 50 years, and again seated together will be some of the most knowledgable and well respected state and federal officials dedicated to developing policies and strategies to ensure we have water in sufficient quantities of suitable quality to meet of our future economic and environmental needs.