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Great Lakes Article:

Need for a national water strategy?
By Phil Magers
United Press International

DALLAS, July 22 (UPI) -- Water planning, routine in the arid states of the Southwest, is becoming a national issue and a Georgia congressman is fighting for legislation that would bring together the foremost experts to layout a national strategy.

Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., wants to bring "the best and brightest minds" together on a 21st Century Water Commission that would establish the groundwork for a comprehensive plan to ensure enough fresh water in the United States for the next 50 years.

"I have watched over the years as we keep growing in population and using more and more water in increasing areas of water shortage, including east of the Mississippi, which we never thought would ever come to shortage," he told United Press International.

Linder said he envisions a commission similar to the one that created the nation's interstate highway system. "I have no intention to nationalize water planning or water policy," he cautioned, just attract the best minds to work on planning for the future.

His bill has received support from several water resources organizations and 13 bipartisan co-sponsors. It would create a seven-member panel appointed by the president to assess current water management programs and available technologies at all levels of government and the private sector.

The commission Linder envisions would conduct a minimum of 10 regional hearings across the nation and issue reports of its findings every six months, as well as a final report within three years after its creation by Congress.

"The United States only re-evaluates its water policies when a crisis hits," he said. "But failure to plan for future water shortages is a recipe for disaster. We must begin now to advance the science and knowledge that will be necessary to deal with 21st century water challenges."

There are thousands of employees at all levels of government and in private industry who collect and disseminate information on water resources, but there is no longer a single national agency that assesses the future water needs of the nation.

The Advisory Committee on Water Information, which reports to the secretary of Interior, includes representatives from government, industry and environmental groups. It has been active and improved the way that water resource information is provided, but it doesn't look at the future.

A newly formed White House panel will recommend ways for the nation to improve science and data programs on water, according to Robert Hirsch, co-chair of the White House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources and deputy water director at the U.S. Geological Survey.

But still, Hirsch said, there is no regular, single forum for the discussion of future water issues as there was when the National Water Resources Council existed. It produced a national water assessment before it was disbanded about 1982.

"I know there have been a number of people who have really been talking about the need to re-institute a forum like that to deal some of these higher level issues," he said, explaining that he was taking no position on any pending legislation.

Hirsch said it's important for the public to be informed about water resources and how drought and human usage impacts the dwindling supplies. He said projections, however, are a risky venture even for experts. There is a tendency to want to do "straight-line projections" that don't always work when climate is a changing issue.

"The fact is that there are a tremendous amount of really human choices involved in the future of demand and, in fact, we have seen that most demand projections that were done several decades ago way, way overshot the amount of water that actually ended up getting used," he said.

Hirsch said water policy decisions usually have to be made at the local or regional level.

"There are a few exceptions to that where there are large interstate rivers, where resources are very scarce, where you cannot make decisions in isolation," he said. "Certainly, for example, the Colorado River Basin because that one is so heavily stressed. Decisions made in Wyoming are significant to what happens in southern Arizona or California."

New Mexico is one of the most recent states to take an aggressive approach to water planning with new legislation enacted this spring that would create a comprehensive, statewide water plan for the state in the fourth year of a persistent drought.

"We cannot achieve our economic, or personal goals without taking immediate steps to ensure New Mexico has an adequate supply of water for generations to come," said Gov. Bill Richardson.

The new plan will address critical issues like water rights, requiring state planning agencies to create a database on surface and groundwater resources, and consult directly with local governments, including Indian nations, tribes and pueblos.

"This will be a process of inclusion, with many avenues for input and participation, but with a timetable for rapid progress and regular reports to the Legislature and to me," Richardson said. "Finally, it will be a conservation-minded plan, incorporating smart water resource management with all possible methods of re-use and recycling."

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