The population of Western states is projected to grow 45 percent by 2030, which means plenty of new demand for water, the most valued resource in many states where it can't rain enough.
To alleviate the pressure that this growth will cause, agriculture, industry, recreationists and residents must learn to get along, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said Monday at a water forum at the Crowne Plaza hotel. Salazar emphasized that agriculture remains the most important water user in the West, but that new techniques and changing attitudes can save millions of gallons a year.
"There is an absolutely inextricable tie to the water supply and the food supply in our country," he said.
Salazar was the headliner at the H20 09 Forum, sponsored by the Urban Institute at Montana State University Billings. Speaking before Salazar were Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both of whom come from agriculture backgrounds where water is precious, they said.
Salazar said water users must become more efficient and employ better management practices, and that the government must improve water infrastructure such as dams and public water supplies.
"We don't have the money to do it all, frankly. But we will do what we can," Salazar said. "More and more, we're learning that we can also stretch our water supply by being more efficient. Technology and economics are driving us to be more efficient."
Salazar's office announced Monday that $40 million in stimulus funds would go toward the Fort Peck/Dry Prairie rural water system in northeast Montana. The system will serve more than 27,000 people, and the stimulus money will be used to complete a water treatment plant, buy needed land and construct pipeline segments.
Baucus said repeatedly that the Bush administration discriminated against Montana with its pro-Wyoming management of the Bighorn River. The long, complicated struggle involves a water agreement, numerous groups and two states that use the Bighorn and other rivers for irrigation, recreation and power generation.
"From the first five minutes that Secretary Salazar was here, I mentioned to him that we've got to get a better allocation" on the Bighorn, Baucus said. "We're going to have a nice conversation sitting in the airplane up to Kalispell, and I think it's going to be pretty constructive."
The all-day water forum brought together more than 100 people who work with water in their daily lives, such as ranchers, municipal engineers, scientists, conservationists and tribal officials.
The forum focused on water use in Montana and how the various uses can collide and conflict. Participants also sought ways to work together, such as managing groundwater and surface water together, and providing treated "gray water" from cities to ranchers for irrigation.
"People really want to cooperate in trying to address the issues and possibly solutions - to move from conversation to action," said conference organizer Chuck Tooley. "One of the issues is climate change. Aside from whether or not it's human-caused, it's happening."