NEVADA VIEWS: Mexican 'water bank' deal can serve as a model

The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West, driving electric power generation, industry, ranching, farming and of course drinking water. But beyond meeting basic human and industrial needs, the Colorado River and Lake Mead are at the heart of the distinctively Western outdoor way of life that makes Nevada such a special place to live and raise a family.

The recent announcement by the Department of the Interior that the United States and Mexico have finalized a short-term agreement on managing Colorado River water is a reminder that we can protect that way of life through compromise and balance.

The importance of protecting Nevada's wildlife habitat cannot be overstated. The hunting and fishing they sustain are not just hobbies -- they are time-honored traditions passed down from generation to generation as part of a way of life that makes each of us responsible to his neighbor as citizen stewards of the special places that belong to all of us. And outdoor recreation is a major engine of Nevada's economy.

Visitors from all over the world come to our state to hunt elk and mule deer, fish for stripers and trout, hike, bike, camp, and take in the unique beauty of Nevada's wild places. And everyone of them helps Nevada's economy to grow and keep local businesses afloat during tough times.

But a wide range of unrelenting pressures has taken its toll on the Colorado, including dramatic population increases, climate change, and eleven years of the worst drought on record. And without urgent action, Western states face dire choices -- including water rationing -- if Lake Mead water levels continue to drop. If we do not act, everything that depends upon the Colorado, including our outdoor heritage, is at risk.

But last month's agreement between U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Mexican Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada offers hope that we can find a responsible solution. The agreement should prove a win-win for both nations and set a precedent for continued collaboration.

An Easter weekend earthquake wrecked the canals and reservoirs that irrigate northern Mexico's agricultural breadbasket, so Mexico cannot fully use its agreed-upon allotment of Colorado River water. And, of course, Nevada and other Western states are facing imminent shortages.

The anticipated agreement's common-sense approach would allow the U.S. to store a portion of Mexico's water allotment, buying both nations some time -- time for Mexico to repair its water management infrastructure and time for the U.S. to put long-term water management solutions in place and avoid more drastic measures.

This temporary "water banking" agreement can serve as a model for a broader U.S.-Mexico agreement offering long-range solutions to the Colorado River water management challenges facing both nations. It can serve as an important reminder that the Colorado's importance goes beyond one species, one industry, one state, or even one country, so lasting solutions require bringing all parties to the table.

It can also validate the idea behind the Colorado River Water Users Association: that by bringing all stakeholders to the table, we can find responsible solutions that deliver wins for all who depend upon the Colorado's water.

This agreement can also pave the way for a broader U.S.-Mexico agreement that advances responsible stewardship of the wild places in both nations. A longer-term agreement built of consensus, as this one has been, can ensure that water continues to flow to the Colorado River delta -- critical habitat for birds, fish and other species who know no political boundary.

It is critical that any forthcoming agreement carefully considers the environmental impacts to the river and the delta. A strong environmental commitment will strengthen the entire agreement, as stewardship over the resources upon which we all depend is a responsibility no state or nation can afford to ignore.

If we take Mr. Salazar's advice and "choose consensus over controversy," we can build upon the water-banking agreement, using it as the foundation for a lasting approach that balances the needs of cities, industry, and agriculture, while protecting the wildlife habitat that fuels our economy and lies at the heart of so many Western families' traditions.

If we take the secretary's advice to heart, the special places our children explore today will still be there for them to explore with their children tomorrow.

Tom Smith of Sparks is vice president of the Coalition for Nevada's Wildlife.