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Parched Western States Looking to Perry's Water Record

You won't hear about the water problems out West during the GOP presidential debate, but as Ben Philpott reports for KUT News and the Texas Tribune, the problems are there — and the next President could play a role in the solutions.

Cows in a field in the Nevada desert.

As Gov. Rick Perry takes his presidential campaign to the water-deprived west, Nevadans and others are looking to his record in Texas to learn more about how he would handle water issues if he moves into the oval office in 2012.

Nevada, along with California, Utah, Wyoming and a few other Western states, is part of a compact that allocates use of the Colorado River, the area's main source of fresh water. And after years of lower-than-normal rainfall and continued population growth, California and Nevada both want need more water.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“There are different ways to solve the problem,” Brett Birdsong, who teaches water law at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, told KUT News. “One is to use the water that you have more efficiently. The other is to augment or increase the water supply in some way.”

Birdsong says southern Nevada has plans to tap groundwater supplies a couple of hundred miles to the north to augment its supply.

But other people already depend on that water -- people who worry what will happen when the pumping starts.

“Once the water flows it’s hard to shut the gate off,” said Wade Poulsen of Alamo, Nev.

Alamo is in the Pahranagat Valley, an oasis of sorts surrounded by hundreds of miles of Nevada’s mountainous desert. A series of springs feed green grass, a couple of lakes and even giant cottonwood trees that tower above the tumbleweeds and scrub brush.

Some locals worry what will happen to this oasis when water from a neighboring valley is channeled south.

“You can have the best science and you can make the best guesses,” Poulsen told KUT News. “But until you start to pump you really don’t understand how it’s going to affect.”

And that environmental concern over the impact of increased pumping is where federal laws are running aground in the eyes of some, says UNLV’s Birdsong.

“Formally, water law has always recognized the primary state role in deciding how that water is allocated,” Birdsong said. “And here we now have these federal environmental protections which are crimping the state’s ability to decide with full autonomy where that water is going to go.”

Which brings us back to Perry, presidential politics and his record on water.

“Well I guess the good news is that it’s not necessarily a bad record,” Amy Hardberger, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Texas, told KUT News. “Perhaps the bad news is it’s not much of a record at all.”

Hardberger says Perry deserves credit for not blocking important water legislation. But while in office he has pushed for legislation and policies that she says ignore the water part of the environmental equation.

“Many of his pro-industry stances, for example his fast-tracking of coal plants, don’t really take the impacts of other resources into consideration,” Hardberger said. “For example, the building of a new power plant has a huge water footprint.”

And then there’s the anti-regulation theme pushed by Perry and the GOP presidential candidates in general, especially regarding the Environmental Protection Agency.

Birdsong says it’s easy to make the EPA the whipping boy on water issues, especially with development dollars potentially at stake.

At the same time, regulations are where an administration can flex serious muscle if it chooses.

“I think that who is the president and who is the secretary of the interior can make a difference, because of their objectives and how much accord they give to environmental concerns,” Birdsong said.

While it’s doubtful Perry will wade into the water issue, especially during primary season, the perceived clash between water policy and environmental regulation is not receding out west. When it comes to articulating a position here, the winner come November 2012 will likely have to do more than skim the surface.

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