Bringing Water to the Desert

Las Vegas may not be the place you’d expect to go for a meeting on water and agriculture, but that’s where I was last week.  The Family Farm Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated the preservation and enhancement of Western irrigated agriculture, was hosting its annual meeting there last week and invited me to moderate a panel on Charting New Waters.  And since agriculture is the second largest user of water in the country (after power generation), this was an invitation I quickly accepted.

The four panelists who joined me each had been involved with The Johnson Foundation’s Freshwater Forum in recent years, and each had a different perspective on why the recommendations and process behind Charting New Waters are critical to achieving freshwater sustainability for the United States.

Roger Wolf, Director of Environmental Programs and Services for the Iowa Soybean Association, understands the business of farming although most of the growers he works with have to deal with concerns about too much water rather than too little.  He told the crowd of approximately 200 western farmers and ranchers “Farmers are in the business of making money, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.  But we want to be leaders in finding solutions” to the challenges we face.  Roger stated that Iowa soybean farmers, which are in the bulls-eye of Mississippi River water quality and flooding problems, should see Charting New Waters as an opportunity to have agricultural issues more fully understood and accounted for while tackling water’s problems.

Steve Malloch, Senior Water Program Specialist at National Wildlife Federation, started off his comments with a quote from President Kennedy that I had never heard – I think it goes like this: “Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be eligible for two Nobel prizes – one for peace, and one for science.”  Steve, who has been on the front lines of water’s legal battles, is a believer in the type of process that The Johnson Foundation brings to the table, having experienced a similar process trying to solve problems on the Yakima River in his home state of Washington.

Joel Lipsitch, Director of External Affairs for John Deere Water Technologies, brought a corporate perspective to the conversation.  As someone who works on water issues around the world, he sees first hand the need to use our water more efficiently, and to solve our problems more efficiently as well.

John Ehrmann, founder and Senior Partner of the Meridian Institute, has facilitated the conversations and negotiations leading up to the release of Charting New Waters.  He concluded the panel’s remarks by stating that “you can’t ask more than for people to be honest, direct, and to listen,” which is what happens at our Wingspread meetings.  But John had a gem of wisdom that I think says it all: “You don’t get any interest in your trust account if you don’t make a deposit.”  If everyone followed that advice, maybe we’d be able to get those two Nobel prizes President Kennedy talked about fifty years ago.

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