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Decades-old water claims, battles over rights remain in limbo

WHITEFISH, Mont. — The fight over natural resources is taking center stage at a meeting of governors from the West, led off by straight talk about the water that has been the source of bitter battles that predate many of the states themselves.

A growing population combined with unsettled arguments over water rights will create more problems, and the sooner those problems are dealt with, the better, the governors were told.

"It is a crisis," University of Arizona law professor and author Robert Glennon said at the opening of the Western Governors’ Association annual meeting. "We need the moral courage and the political will to act."

In many states, water claims in entire watersheds remain in limbo without the funding to sort out who owns what, Glennon said.

And treaty claims by many Indian tribes stretch back 150 years. Some of the claims are the focus of unresolved settlements that could require the taxpayers to cough up cash to buy the water rights.

About three-quarters of the region’s water goes to agriculture, and Glennon said prices need to be raised to increase conservation.

But Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said the water claims can be sorted out locally, even if slowly. No one would trust outsiders to come in and do it for them, he said.

"We are very jealous about our water in Idaho and our use of it," Otter said.

Too little is known about the inter­connection of different water aquifers, rivers and basins, the governors were told. The relationships will be key in charting out water use agreements.

"I think there is general consensus we can’t manage what we can’t measure and what we don’t understand," said Michael Connor, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Also, the Western Governors’ Association is discussing climate change and the future of energy technology at a three-day meeting near Glacier National Park. Many of the governors agree that they need to find a way to fast-track development of transmission lines for alternative energy such as wind power.

Even neighbors who agree on many issues — for example, fellow Democrats Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal — find themselves entangled in legal snarls over water.

Before the event Schweitzer walked over to reporters, suggesting a question to pose Freudenthal.

"I’d ask that fella why he won’t stop stealing our water," Schweitzer said. "That’d be a good question."

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