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The Arid West—Where Water Is Scarce - Water 2025

department interior bureau reclamation

Problems in the West, including explosive population growth, existing water shortages, conflicts over water, aging water facilities, and ineffective crisis management, have led to a U.S. Department of the Interior proposal designed to assist communities in addressing these needs. A May 2, 2003, Department of the Interior press release, Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West, calls for concentrating existing federal financial and technical resources in key western watersheds and in critical research and development, such as water conservation and desalinization, that will help to predict, prevent, and alleviate water supply conflicts. Table 8.2 outlines the five "realities" of water in the West as identified in Water 2025.

The proposal emphasizes the need for states, tribes, local governments, and the public to decide how best to resolve the water supply crisis in the West. As part of this plan, the Bureau of Reclamation prepared an analysis of potential water supply crises and conflicts that may occur by the year 2025. The Bureau of Reclamation intends to seek extensive input from states, tribes, and the public on the prepared analysis and will revise and improve the analysis as needed.

Water 2025 is a departure from previous plans in that its focus is on strategies and measures that can be put in place before events such as drought bring further divisiveness to communities in the West. The Bureau of Reclamation believes that conflict can be minimized or avoided when potential water supply crises are addressed in advance by local and regional communities. (See Figure 8.5.) Its water-crisis prevention efforts will focus on four key tools:

  • Water conservation, water-use efficiency, and markets
  • Collaboration
  • Improved technology
  • Removal of institutional barriers and increasing inter-agency coordination

Potential water supply crises by 2025
SOURCE: "Potential Water Supply Crises by 2025," in Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, May 2003, (accessed April 13, 2005)


The Bureau of Reclamation has identified Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems as one area in which water conservation efforts can be improved in the management of rivers. These systems allow river managers to remotely monitor and operate key river and canal facilities on a real-time basis. The Bureau recommends that individual stations be set to monitor river levels or flow rates continuously. This will help the Department of the Interior and water district managers to respond to daily water management needs and emergencies in a timely fashion by controlling pump and canal facilities remotely. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the cost of this high-tech equipment has become more affordable over time, less than 20% of irrigation water delivery systems use this technology.

Research indicates that for every dollar spent on canal modernization (such as rehabilitating canal gates), an expected return of three to five dollars in conserved water can be achieved. In addition, for every dollar spent on maintaining an existing canal lining, a return of up to $10 in conserved water can be achieved. Canal-lining technologies have reduced seepage losses in central Oregon by as much as 50%.

Additional measures recommended by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation include improvement in design and construction of new measuring devices for irrigation water delivery systems, continued support for water banks and water markets, and interagency efforts to coordinate existing and new water conservation programs.


The Bureau of Reclamation points to litigation over competing water rights as one of the problems affecting water supply and conservation efforts in the West. Water managers sometimes must wait years or even decades until adjudication is completed. In the meantime, they do not know how to allocate water in times of scarcity. The Department of the Interior intends to work with states, tribes, and other interested stake-holders to find ways in which to accelerate court proceedings in order to protect existing federal and nonfederal rights.

An example of successful facilitation efforts occurred in California. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, for more than two decades the East Bay Municipal Utility District and several localities struggled over the management of the Sacramento River, resulting in the disruption of the efficient use of water. Facilitation sponsored by the Bureau of Reclamation led to a sustainable and locally developed agreement among the interested parties.


Recognizing that waste-water, salty water, and other impaired water can be purified to increase their usefulness, the Department of the Interior will facilitate research to reduce the high costs that impede adoption of new water purification technologies. The Department of the Interior recommends that the United States Geological Survey make a comprehensive study of untapped but impaired water supplies with a focus on locations with a high probability of water demands exceeding supplies by 2025.

Another recommendation by the Bureau of Reclamation is the reduction of the high costs of water desalination. The Department of the Interior intends to facilitate the implementation of desalination and advanced water treatment through improved interagency coordination of research and focused investments to areas most in need of planning support.


According to the Department of the Interior, in some areas of the West, federal facilities have excess capacity during certain times of the year that could be used to satisfy unmet demands elsewhere. Sometimes this excess capacity is not available because of policy or legal constraints. The Department of the Interior believes that in some cases, this additional capacity can be made available with appropriate changes in Department of the Interior policies.

The Department of the Interior will cooperate with other federal agencies to more effectively focus federal dollars on critical water shortage areas. Through active support of the National Drought Monitoring Network the Department will help accelerate the development of strategies for drought preparedness.

Additional measures include the formation of Drought Action Teams to focus scarce resources quickly when and where they are needed, and the publication by the USGS of water resources assessments online so that decision makers can better understand the water supply component of drought conditions.

Disputes over water and its use will continue to be a major issue in the West well into the twenty-first century.

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