The theme of State's Rights regarding water resources and the appropriate federal role has been ongoing for a very long time, and about every 20 years or so the issue is raised again - usually by the states, and usually accusing the federal government of either overstepping it's water authority or trying outright to grab the states' waters.
It's happening again it seems. On April 25 the Water and Power Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing focused on opposing continual federal usurpation of local water rights. Several activities were fleshed out during these hearings. One was a claim by a Wyoming Conservation District chairman that the National Blueways System program run by the Interior Department summarily designated the Yellowstone River basin in Montana and Wyoming as a Blueway without any of the increased coordination elements the program was purporting to provide - increased coordination and consultation with affected landowners or public hearings. While the Blueways program says it is simply to promote local conservation efforts and does not add any new regulations or protection statuses to designated rivers, the locals are a bit more direct in their assertion that it could result in the requirement for increased coordination - thus an increased federal presence and influence - since the feds are part of the coordination team.
Another example covered in the hearings involved a recent US Forest Service directive that forbids ski areas from selling their water rights except to the next owner of the ski area. The Colorado Legislators passed a resolution condemning the Forest Service for that policy, and when they introduced a more substantive bill that would have prohibited the federal government from demanding water rights in return for issuing land-use permits, the locals tell that an influential Forest Service Undersecretary made personal calls to Colorado legislators to get the bill set aside. They too, said the federal government was overstepping its authority in regard to water rights.
I'd be remiss if here I didn't add my pet peeve to the list - involving the activities of the federal Water Information Coordination Program (WICP) and its daughter subcommittee the federal Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI). Some think a few of these efforts may be another federal foray into state's water right issues, albeit one that is so long, large, broad and hard to follow that it has operated below everyone's radar. I won't recite everything here, but I've blogged about it before. Search my blog for "ACWI" if you're interested.
When the mission statement of a workgroup within this complex federally-led entity is: "Serve as a forum to share information and perspectives that will promote better decision making in the U.S. regarding the sustainability of our nation's water resources.", doesn't it say that "sustainability" is the policy of that federal effort? When did sustainability of water resources become the national policy of the U.S.?
And when a federal agency bulletin says: "The new role of science will be to support environmental decision making to achieve some new level of sustainable use that will provide an assured supply of good-quality water for humans and for stream and riparian ecosystems.", doesn't it read that "sustainability" is the agency policy?
I'm not arguing that sustainability isn't a good and noble goal or policy. I'm arguing that WICP and ACWI should not be the entity to decide what the federal policy is to be while subcommittees of this group are deciding what data is to be used and where they will get the data. The data should drive the policy, not the other way around.
What ramifications are there in every venue of water IF the federal government gets to choose the national water policy, and, it is in fact sustainability? Anyway, this entire arrangement should be looked into IMHO.
However, whether I'm right or wrong, you can bet the tussle for control of water between the federal government and the individual states will continue long into the future. My guess is it'll get more subtle rather than more aggressive. Anyway, maybe we all should tune into this issue just a bit more.