Presidential race place to make water a priority

Here’s an issue I would love to see become part of the discussion during the coming presidential race: How can we secure enough water supplies to sustain the nation’s growth, particularly in the West?

The West is where most Americans increasingly choose to live. About one out of every three of us lives in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington or Alaska. And many of those still-fast-growing states face serious water challenges.

“Water made the West. And its historic evaporation will unmake it — unless this generation is as creative as its forebears in finding sustainable ways to live within the 20-inch isohyet,” historian David M. Kennedy wrote in Stanford University’s alumni magazine back in 2008.

As Kennedy explained, a 20-inch isohyet is the boundary of an area that gets less than 20 inches of rain each year. That’s also the term meteorologists use to describe an arid region.

Kennedy’s point remains relevant, even more so.

Recurring droughts challenge the West. Droughts not only test the ability of arid metropolitan areas like San Antonio and Phoenix to deliver water to residents and businesses. They also threaten land management and agricultural production across the rural West.

Large swaths of the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico and southern Colorado are parched. Stock tanks have dried up, leaving cattle with no place to drink. In some places, the land is too dry for even weeds to grow.

Those parts that are not as parched grow crops that look like stubbles of golden-brown winter wheat. No wonder serious fires have roared across acres of Arizona and New Mexico. And smaller fires threaten acreage on farms and ranches.

That stark reality affects the rest of America because so much of our food comes from western states. If these conditions persist, water shortages will show up in our food bills.

The challenge of finding good water supplies is also a global reality. In places like northern Mexico or sub-Saharan Africa, water shortages or undrinkable water is a fact of life.

All the more reason for 2012 candidates, including President Barack Obama, to make water the next great ecological issue. With westerners like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry either in the Republican race or likely to join it, you would think this would be a topic some candidates would feel in their bones.

In Perry’s case, he has never supported the kind of money needed to fund Texas’ 50-year water plan. But he has stuck his neck out to designate land for more reservoirs, which are politically unpopular but necessary water sources for Texas’ future.

What Perry, Huntsman and the rest of the GOP field should like is that water issues are largely state and local matters. Managing aquifers and rivers so humans and nature have enough to live on, devising the best conservation strategies and constructing water projects are the types of demands that require strong local and state voices. That’s true even in those places where the federal government plays a significant role because of public lands or water compacts among states.

Washington needs to play a new role, though. Congress should require states to create their own long-term water plans. Some have them, but not all do. And some of those created may be tucked away on dusty shelves and no longer realistic.

Federal officials should not dictate the plans. States should make the calls, because they know local issues best. But they must have plans to get any federal dollars for water proposals. Even 10th Amendment Republicans should be able to live with this kind of creative federalism.

First, though, water issues need a higher profile. The coming presidential race is the place to elevate them.

• McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

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