Feb 1, 2023 | Blog

A Look Back at the “Best Ever” Mid-Pacific Water Users Conference

Dan Keppen, Executive Director

It’s that time of year, again. 

When Western farmers, ranchers, and water managers aren’t doing their best to grow food and fiber for our country and the world, many of them like to attend water conferences. At least, a lot of the ones I work with do. 

From October through February of every year, I typically speak at 6-10 water conferences across the West. Right now, I’m between gigs, anticipating a trip back to Orlando to speak to the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and prepping for our own Family Farm Alliance annual conference later this month.

Last week, I spent four days in Reno, Nevada at the 55th Annual Mid-Pacific Water Users Conference. I’ve served on the planning committee for this conference since 1999, when I was still working for the Northern California Water Association in Sacramento. This event is organized through a unique partnership between the Bureau of Reclamation and its water user customers in California, Western Nevada, and the Klamath Basin, my new home since 2001. 

This year’s conference drew over 320 attendees, the largest ever, including a strong contingent of over 60 Reclamation employees. By many accounts, it was the “best ever” MP event, primarily due to the quality of the speakers and panels who presented over the course of three days. 

Much of the discussion dealt with juxtaposition of the recent multi-year drought on top of the series of “atmospheric rivers” that swamped much of California in late December / early January. 

The Western drought has certainly kept us busy at Family Farm Alliance in recent years. Alliance reps testified at half-a-dozen hearings and forums on Capitol Hill in the last Congress. Drought was the topic of most of those hearings. In each of our Congressional appearances, we emphasized how the drought underscored many realities that Western water users have tried to raise with policy makers over the past decade, or more. 

For example, the drought demonstrated that improved and modernized water infrastructure – including new water storage – is needed to protect future water supply reliability in the West. 

Fortunately, the general public and many in the media are beginning to recognize this, too. 

Mike Wade, the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC) and I tag-teamed on a luncheon presentation about food security at last week’s conference. Mike and his team at CFWC posted this timely blog last week that shows how news outlets across the state and the nation are pointing out that California has dragged its feet making the changes to water storage and regulations that will help the state adjust to climate change: “There is broad consensus on the need to capture more water when it’s raining”

The drought also clearly showed that water management in the West is becoming too inflexible. Even during times of flooding, state and federal regulations can prevent that water from being held over time to support human uses. Water users at the MP conference who are served by Western federal water projects like California’s Central Valley Project (CVP) and the Klamath Project in Oregon and California are facing “regulatory droughts” as well as hydrologic droughts. 

Last week in Reno, I moderated a panel of five CVP water authority and district managers who all emphatically stated that we need a new way of looking at how we manage environmental demands for our limited water resources. One of those speakers, Jason Phillips, the CEO for Friant Water Authority, followed up this week with a succinct and powerful opinion piece, titled “California’s Permanent Drought”. 

Jason explains that, even in times when water is plentiful, California’s magnificent dams and canals still cannot meet the state’s water needs. Starting in the early 1990’s, as a result of state and federal laws, regulations, lawsuits, and decisions, (both by elected and unelected officials), reservoirs are not allowed to convey the water stored for the intended purposes, and instead a large percentage of water must now be sent to the Pacific Ocean. 

“This is because decades after they were built, the government will no longer allow our water infrastructure to operate the way it was intended,” he writes. “Each year this problem is getting worse, and unelected government officials are allowed to divert more water away from homes, communities, and farms.”

Clearly, we need a broader view of how water is used to meet environmental needs, one that considers state water laws, science, population growth, food production and habitat needs. 

Fortunately, it looks like some elected officials are ready to step up with solutions. 

One of the keynote speakers last week was Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-OR), who spoke via ZOOM to the audience gathered for breakfast in Reno on Thursday. Earlier today, Rep. Bentz was formally selected as the new Chairman of the Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

This subcommittee is tasked with the immensely important responsibility of overseeing and improving the federal policies and laws that so significantly affect America’s use and protection of our freshwater, our oceans, and our wildlife. Last week in Reno, and today in a public statement, Chairman Bentz said his Subcommittee would conduct serious oversight of how federal agency implementation of laws like the Endangered Species Act is directing water away from farming communities who have relied upon it for decades. 

“Our subcommittee will improve the federal response to the crippling drought that is challenging the future of the west so that everyone—farmers, ranchers, homeowners, businesses, and tribes—can continue to live in and produce food and fiber, essential to our nation’s security, on our lands,” said Rep. Bentz. “Yes, we will be advocating for the storage of more water.” 

Want to hear more about these issues from Rep. Bentz and “those in the arena”? He’ll be the keynote luncheon speaker on February 23 at another great gathering taking place at the Silver Legacy Resort: the 2023 Family Farm Alliance annual conference.  

Join us in Reno – again – on February 23-24 at the 2023 Family Farm Alliance Annual Conference BY CLICKING HERE

Photo credits: Aric Coppola, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation