False Choice Presented by Speaker, New Bill Highlight the Coming Fight Over Water

A few weeks ago one of the most powerful men in America made a statement conservationists should take as the opening shot in the biggest war we will ever fight. And it's a war we are likely to lose if we are not very, very smart.

John Boehner, Speaker of the House, looked at a drought-stricken landscape in California and said, "How you can favor fish over people is something people in my part of the world would never understand."

That's only the start.

As the droughts that climate scientists warned about begin to deepen and spread, we'll be charged with favoring waterfowl, upland birds, big-game herds, even forests over people.

Anything we try to conserve by protecting its water supply will be - well, fair game.

You may be thinking that conservationists have faced similar charges when trying to protect terrestrial habitats, and still emerged victorious. And you'd be right. But that's because people and communities could live and prosper on the available land, and we have plenty of that left.

But nothing can live or function without water - not farms, schools, hospitals, or homes. And we're now entering the water crisis ecologists have been warning about for decades.

It's not news that we've been allowing the pace of development in most areas to exceed the local water supply, always thinking we could always borrow from other sources. That was the theory that powered development across the entire Southwest and southern California. But now those other sources are running dry.

So politicians supported by interests who have always thought conservation was a noble but unnecessary idea will have a hammer to beat against regulations protecting fish and wildlife:

How can you choose fish over people? Or farms? Or hospitals? Or schools? Or jobs? Or entire towns and cities?

That's a false choice, of course. But it won't sound like it when the other side can point to parched and cracked ag fields, children standing in water lines at schools, and water rationing in communities.

Such a scenario is why the recently introduced SECURE Water Amendment Act of 2014 (S. 2019) is so important.

This bill extends the authority and expands the reach of an innovative program started in 2009 at the Bureau of Reclamation that already is conserving 616,000 acre-feet of water per year, which is enough water for 2.5 million people annually.

The program has two features critical to protecting fish and wildlife in the water crisis ahead: It is based on conserving water, not finding new sources. And it depends on private-public partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders coming together for a common good.

Sportsmen will not be able to protect water for fish and wildlife habitat unless we have the support of these other interests.

The bill would extend the life of the program to 2025, and allow it to expand by lifting the $200 million spending cap currently in place. Of course, Congress would have to appropriate any funding.

"A lot of traditional water interests in the West are participants, have seen how effective the programs have been, and are behind this bill," said Jimmy Hague, director of the Center for Water Resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

"And what we've been able to show is that the conservation programs don't just support good fish habitat, they are a boon for the communities using water more efficiently.

"These partnerships are definitely a key."

And they will be a key going forward. Because when a politician accuses us of favoring fish over people, we can honestly say, "No, we're helping fish while favoring people."