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Western governors eye water supplies

/ Source: The Associated Press

It's an old quip in the West: Whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'. Only these days, there's more people with a stake in the fight for water and a dwindling supply.

Quenching the growing demand for water in the warming West will require a bigger push for conservation, innovative technology and a rethinking of supply and demand, Western governors and water experts said Sunday.

The three-day Western Governors' Association meeting that began Sunday focuses on key issues that affect states throughout the West, including water use, climate change and energy.

This year — with several cabinet members from the Obama administration and a record attendance — the political landscape has shifted and there's a renewed urgency for swapping ideas and working together, attendees said.

Sunday's main discussion, which included Canadian officials and experts from the Middle East and Australia, focused on managing water amid changing climate conditions.

Although many of the controversies in the West center around urbanization, natural resources and energy development, water — and often the lack of it — comes up again and again.

"Water is connected to all those things," said panelist Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland, Calif.

Gleick said there's evidence of intensified water disputes, ecosystem collapse in some places and a population growth that's driving a sometimes-fractured water management system.

States can no longer rely on simply building more storage capacity, which can be expensive and "politically challenging," he said. The West needs to consider other supply options such as rainwater, use of treated wastewater and desalination plants, Gleick said.

Climate change — which will alter precipitation and the timing of mountain snow melt — also needs to be incorporated into all water management decisions, he said.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said the region needs to do more to protect the water that's already available.

"Conservation has to become an ethic in the West," he said.

Inevitably, though, there will be hard decisions to make about who gets water and who doesn't, said Doug Miell, an Australian water consultant and former leader of an irrigation council during some of the country's worst drought conditions.

"The bad news is there's no silver bullet," said Miell, who advocated for more information gathering and sharing among resource managers.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the incoming WGA chairman, agreed that water needs to be better measured, moved more efficiently and conserved on a larger scale.

"Those of us who are managing water in the West know how important this is," he said.