Lawyers debate control of water

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – A point-counterpoint debate about whether one size fits all and the federal role in managing regional water resources took added significance Thursday during an American Bar Association water-law conference at a casino in drought-threatened Las Vegas.

A water-rights lawyer from California, David Aladjem, argued that the federal role should be like that of a marriage counselor, encouraging commitments between states, including the seven that share the Colorado River before it reaches Mexico.

Each state has equal footing with the other, said Aladjem, a partner in the Sacramento firm Downey Brand LLP. That leaves the federal government with what he called “a ministerial role as a mere hauler and carrier of water with no authority to manage and regulate.”

Reed Benson, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law in Albuquerque, said states need what he called a gorilla in the room, and federal money, to reach agreements.

“Federal money has been, and is today, important in addressing challenges with water resources where the deep pocket is needed,” Benson said. He cited the need for parties to cooperate and compromise on issues affecting water basins stretching across several states, questions about tribal water rights, and overarching concerns about water quality and quantity.

“Finally, climate change is going to make these issues all the more difficult and that much more challenging,” Benson said.

The debate drew about 150 attorneys for a continuing legal education session as part of an American Bar Association conference at the Red Rock Casino & Spa.

Aladjem characterized the federal authority debate as “intellectual jousting” for the lawyers.

But water management is more than an academic question in the parched West, where authorities including the federal Bureau of Reclamation warn that the growing demand for Colorado River water may outstrip supply in coming years. The bureau controls levers at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams for cities, states, farmers and Indian tribes in a region that is home to 40 million people.

Allocations of river water to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming hinge on a so-called “law of the river” compact reached with federal oversight in 1922.

Las Vegas, with 2 million residents and another 40 million visitors a year, is almost completely dependent on Colorado River water drawn from the Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam. Local water officials stress conservation, and they note that the iconic dancing fountains in front of the Bellagio resort use recycled water.

Southern California gets 25 percent of its water from the Colorado River and 30 percent from drought-stricken in-state sources.

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