Fisheries Conservation photo

The year is 2015 and your community finds its water supply diminishing. Government must make a choice: Keep the dwindling reserves moving to homes, hospitals, schools, and factories–or keep it going to fish, wetlands, and wildlife.

Who wins?

I think you know. The nation’s fish and wildlife managers certainly do. They’re already experiencing a water crisis.

“When political decisions have to be made for a diminishing water supply, fish and wildlife becomes a trivial consideration,” says Jim Martin, former chief of fisheries at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and one of the nation’s experts on freshwater supplies. “We are racing into a water crisis that is pitting people against fish and wildlife, and unfortunately, most politicians either don’t understand it or don’t want to face up to it. But I can tell you, if we don’t become proactive on this, fish and wildlife don’t have much of a future.”

By now, many readers are wondering: What water crisis? Sure, there are water shortages in various areas of the nation–the Southeast, the Southwest, and California. But those are drought-related, as always. When rain returns–as it always does–the reservoirs will fill again, fish will swim upstream, game animals will multiply, and farmers and fishermen will stop fighting.

But the nation’s water experts say that familiar cycle is coming to an end. Like Jim Martin, they see a future in which freshwater is more precious than oil, where tankers transport water to needy regions, where the largest and most expensive pipelines the world will ever see are laid to bring potable water from northern climates to a parched U.S.

Unchecked, unplanned, and ill-advised development is outstripping the water supply. A 2007 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says that 36 states will face critical water shortages over the next decade. And those estimates do not fully account for the increased losses of freshwater due to a warming climate.

It sounds like a science-fiction tale. But unless we change our development practices, it’s the not-so-distant future.

A Worst-Case Scenario Come True The mere thought of a water crisis frightens fish and wildlife managers like nothing else. It makes previous fights over resources such as forests, wetlands, or farming practices seem easy, because this one has a different bottom line: Society will consider a water shortage a zero-sum debate.

A community might decide it can live without another shopping mall or refinery. It might concede its economy can endure without draining a wetland for another few acres of corn.

But there is no adapting to a lack of water. Life stops when the well runs dry.

The terror of that reality is already rippling across the nation. Atlanta came within 90 days of running out of water two years ago. Some Florida communities have canceled building permits due to lack of water for new residents. Towns in Tennessee are borrowing water from neighbors in Alabama. Texas and Oklahoma are involved in a court fight over water from the Red River system.

A look at the crisis gripping California’s ­Sacramento-​San Joaquin River Delta region gives sportsmen a taste of what we will be up against in the years ahead.

One of the most important water basins in the nation for fish and humans, the delta was already being overtaxed by allotments to agricultural interests in the Central Valley when the current drought began three years ago, forcing the federal government to restrict supplies to both farmers and fish. Fishing for Central Valley chinook salmon was closed.

“That run was the mainstay of the offshore California and southern Oregon salmon fisheries for 150 years,” says Dick Pool, a director of Water4Fish, a California fishing advocacy group. “As late as 2002 we had 700,000 salmon returning, and in 2008 that was down to 66,000–the lowest ever recorded. And biologists say we need a return of 122,000 for a viable population.”

The American Sportfishing Association figures that closures have cost approximately 23,000 jobs and robbed the economy of $1.4 billion.

Farmers have been hurt as well. Richard Howitt, an economist at the University of California, Davis, estimates that the impact of water reductions on the San Joaquin Valley–the largest farming region in the nation–may total 80,000 jobs and more than $2 billion.

“This is one of the classic, really difficult trade-offs we are faced with in hard times: environmental values versus human suffering,” Howitt told the Toronto Globe and Mail, adding, “We are going to have to make a fundamental choice…it’s fish versus jobs and communities.”

Oklahoma fisheries officials understand that concept now. “Texas wants more water to support the development that has been ongoing down there, but when we planned the fisheries for the reservoirs in our state decades ago, that wasn’t even a thought,” says Gene Gilliland, senior fisheries biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “The periods for their peak demand will be in the summer, when loss of water will have the most serious impact on our fisheries.

“You can see this happening all across the region as the competition for water supplies becomes more intense. The way to win these fights is to prevent them from happening.”

Unlikely Allies That strategy starts with forming powerful coalitions that can represent fish and wildlife needs before development is even planned. Sportsmen must band together with environmental groups, as well as homeowners who want to preserve a way of life.

“Our groups have to insist that governments–local, state, and fed­eral–develop water-­management plans first, before they consider any future development in an ecosystem,” says Martin, who is now chairman of the board at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We need to be at the table and ready with the facts to say: O.K., this is what salmon or stripers or trout or bass or wetlands need from this ecosystem in the future.

“All of this has to be done on the front end. Coming in after development is a loser because there will be too much invested already. We can’t win that fight.”

That kind of early involvement by the sporting community might have helped reduce damage to the Sacramento Delta. Martin points out that 85 percent of the water drawn from that delta goes to agriculture, and some of that is for cotton production that is subsidized by government regulations. It’s a lose-lose for wildlife, and taxpayers.

That’s why forming coalitions is crucial. A homeowners association, for example, might not care about catching fish, but they will care about property values; a healthy, dependable water supply; and sensible, uncrowded development.

It has been done before. In 1991, Pool was a member of a coalition of anglers, environmentalists, and urban governments in northern California that convinced Congress to pass the widely praised Central Valley Project Improvement Act. The law reprioritized use of water stored in large reservoirs, sending less to farming and more to wetlands, fish, wildlife, and urban areas.

“In later years the state has ignored that law, but that’s why this coalition is re-forming,” Pool says. “We met with some congressmen in Washington this year, and they told the fishing groups: ‘You guys can’t win this on your own. Get that coalition back together.’
“So we are. There’s too much at stake.”

If you foresee any threat to the water supply in your region, here are some tips:

• Become knowledgeable on the subject. Read Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It, by Robert Glennon, 2009, Island Press.

• Contact your state fisheries agency and ask if there are any existing water-shortage dangers to fish and wildlife.

• Urge elected officials to oppose projects that would use water irresponsibly.

• Practice what you preach. Water conservation begins at home.