The Greenback, the Humpback, and the Silverback: How a Third Wave of Federal Water Policy Could Benefit the West
Benson, Reed D.
Proposing any major new federal initiative regarding water in the western United States might seem preposterous, given conventional wisdom and entrenched positions on state control of water resources. But there is a strong rationale, and a growing imperative, for a new federal water policy for the West. Many river basins face serious problems as limited water supplies are over-allocated, demands continue to increase, and climate change promises to exacerbate the West’s perennial problems of scarcity and variability. Solutions to such problems are likely to be expensive and will need to address national interests as well as state and local concerns. Like the first two eras of federal water policy—water project development, followed by environmental protection—the third wave will need to bring federal money to the table in proportion to the size of the problems to be solved. But that money will come with important conditions, helping to ensure that western water problems are resolved in a way that meets national needs. This Article begins by summarizing the value of the federal role in western water management, examining the first two waves of federal water policy, and exploring how Congress employed a broadly similar approach to both building water supply projects and regulating water quality. It then turns to indications of modern demands for federal involvement in western water issues, and concludes with observations about important elements of a third wave of federal water policy for the West.